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Sonoma County bilingual swim program teaches children, parents about water safety

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Sebastopol’s Ives Pool buzzed with the sound of giggles and splashing Saturday morning as about 40 children went through a range of water safety lessons with plenty of summertime glee.

With the help of a lifeguard, a group of about six young swimmers worked on basic skills, such as dunking their heads into the water, blowing bubbles and retrieving plastic rings from the bottom of a shallow pool. Older children tried their luck with more advanced techniques, including floating on their back and gliding through the water in a backstroke.

“I learned how to swim on my back,” Leilani Sanchez, 9, of Sebastopol told her mother after the lesson. “I’m so happy.”

Saturday’s free swim lesson was just one of eight hosted by Sonoma County Regional Parks since mid-April as part of its Let’s Go Swimming, or Vamos a Nadar, program.

The program is designed for both kids and their parents, with the children taking to the pool while the parents learn at a water safety class taught in English and Spanish. Proper swim attire, choosing the right-size life jacket and advice on what to do when someone is drowning are among the topics covered in the safety class, said Lesley Pfeiffer, the recreation director for Sonoma County Regional Parks who heads the swimming program.

Both groups converged midsession for a demonstration on using objects such as food coolers or a water noodle to help someone who is struggling to stay afloat. At the end of the course, parents were given a coupon for discounted swim classes at participating pools.

Parents pay $15 for the additional classes while the program covers the rest of the cost, Pfeiffer said. It’s an incentive meant to encourage parents to keep bringing their children to local pools so they can develop their skills, she added.

“We just try to get the kids who are unable to access pools water savvy,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s just knowing what to be prepared for.”

The program has gained traction since its start in 2004, when a spike of drownings at local waterways prompted county officials to increase their messaging about water safety, said Rosiris Guerra, the program’s founder. She believed a longer-term solution was needed, one that would address the fact that many of the drownings involved Latino swimmers, Guerra said.

“I said, ‘We need to get this generation to change their mindset, to be safer in the water,’ ” Guerra said. “The change in mentality, that’s what I’m looking for. The families that come and actually do things that help their children be safer.”

Santa Rosa’s Finley Aquatic Center served as the pilot pool for the program during the first year, but more pools agreed to participate the next summer when high attendance made it was clear that a demand for low-cost swimming classes existed.

Now, nine pools across seven cities in Sonoma County, including Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Windsor and Cloverdale, have partnered with Regional Parks to provide the classes. The Sonoma Aquatic Club in Sonoma joined the list for the first time this year, expanding the number of families who have access to the program, Pfeiffer said. As many as 2,000 kids have benefited from the program.

Many of the parents who attended Saturday’s class said they had participated in the Let’s Go Swimming program in the past, mentioning the discounted swim classes and bilingual water safety training as major factors for their return.

That included Cinthia Perez, who brought her 9-year-old daughter for the third time this summer. Before learning about the program, Perez said she avoided taking her children to pools because she feared they might drown or hurt themselves. The discounted swim lessons made it affordable enough for her to enroll both kids, and the experience encouraged her to sign up for beginner swim classes for adults at Ives Pool so she could learn how to swim, too.

“For many families who don’t have the resources, it’s helpful,” she said. “I’m not so tense when I take my kids to the pool.”

One final Let’s Go Swimming event is scheduled for this summer at the Sonoma County YMCA in Santa Rosa on June 23. For information and registration, call 707-565-8034.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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