Bilingual Sonoma County swim program reaches another generation with water safety lessons

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Nine-year-old Trigo Casttellanos slipped into the pool Saturday at the Cloverdale YMCA and began treading water as hard as he could.

After about 10 seconds, the fifth-grader at Santa Rosa’s Matanzas Creek Elementary School listed to the side and began to sink. A lifeguard watching over him grabbed him by the arm and hauled him out.

“I’ve learned but haven’t completely learned,” Casttellanos said. “I still struggle.”

He was among a handful of children and parents to attend the last of seven sessions of Vamos a Nadar, a swimming and water-safety program offered in English and Spanish.

Since it’s inception in 2004, more than 2,000 people have taken part in Let’s Go Swimming. At the end of the three-hour instruction, participants get a coupon for $15 swim lessons at pools throughout the county.

The program was created in response to a spate of drownings in the area, mostly on the Russian River and often involving Latino victims. From 2002 to 2016, two dozen people drowned on the river. It’s believed many were unable to afford swim lessons.

“Learning to swim is a luxury in our countries,” said Rosiris Guerra, a Venezuela native and American Red Cross volunteer who helped create Vamos a Nadar and turned out for the Cloverdale session. “But around here it is a must. We’re surrounded by water.”

She said she’s given out the last of the $15 coupons for the season but many pools offer scholarships for low-income students. Santa Rosa’s two public pools, Ridgway and Finley, along with Ives pool in Sebastopol, are accepting new students, organizers said.

And Vamos a Nadar will be back next year. It recently received a $45,000 grant from the Finley Foundation to keep it going the next three years.

“We want to educate people,” said David Robinson, program manager for Sonoma County Regional Parks. “Swim lessons are not cheap.”

On Saturday, kids waded in the pool, taking pointers from lifeguards on dog-paddling and diving with varying levels of success and more than a few belly flops.

“We’re going to learn to fly in the water!” instructor Bella Lansdown told the group as she raised her arms over her head. “We need our flying arms!”

As youngsters splashed and kicked, parents sitting across the pool listened to James Brooks, a lifeguard and Cali Calmecac Language Academy math teacher, explain how to be safe around the water.

Brooks focused on how to avoid a double-drowning when trying to save someone and offered tips such as how to adjust a life jacket or make a do-it-yourself flotation device from a plastic bleach bottle.

He urged people to pay attention to shifting conditions.

“We all love the river and it is beautiful,” Brooks said in Spanish. “But the river changes constantly.”

Santa Rosa mom Tina Guerrero said she brings her four kids back every year for a refresher. She started doing it about 10 years ago when her son, now 17, fell in a pool at a party and didn’t know how to swim.

“It scared us pretty good,” she said. “We’ve got to take precautions.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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