Sebastopol Rotarian Rick Wilson says volunteers in the club's annual Learn to Swim program for community second-graders start to recognize the look that appears on a child's face when the instruction suddenly clicks.
It's usually a few weeks in when, all of a sudden, a youngster who couldn't swim realizes, "I can do this," provoking a burst of confidence that extends beyond the pool to daily life, Wilson said.
In what's now the 30th year of the program, organizers say they've provided that step up to more than 9,000 Sebastopol-area students to ensure local youth acquire basic swimming skills and water safety instruction they might not otherwise get.
The goal is to prevent drowning — the second-leading cause of accidental death among children aged 1 to 14, behind vehicle crashes — and provide a bit of personal empowerment, as well, said Greg Jacobs, who leads the program.
The lessons are particularly important for kids, including many from Latino families, who don't have a cultural tradition of swim lessons, Jacobs said. But with rising costs and the time required to squeeze lessons in, lots of people have trouble getting their kids into classes, he said.
The swim program "is huge, especially for kids that are fearful of the water," said Parkside Elementary School second-grade teacher Jenny Sortino, a 25-year veteran of local schools. "It's their first positive nurturing experience in the water for them, and they — the teachers or whatever you want to call them — just take it as slowly as needed."
Kids who are afraid of the water are often more willing to get in the pool when they see their peers in the water, having fun, Jacobs said.
Since the youngsters work in small groups clustered by skill level, the lessons can be adapted to each student's experience, so even those who already swim proficiently can learn new strokes.
Wilson, an emergency medical technician, white-water rafting expert and co-coach for the Rotary program, said school personnel tell him of the swagger some kids develop when they can stop a teacher or principal in the hallway to tell them, "I know how to swim now."
The swim classes are offered each April at Ives Pool near downtown Sebastopol. They were launched three decades ago after a former member of the Sebastopol Rotary Club named Jeff Boal proposed the service club's members develop a special project for local youth.