The gift of swimming

Above and left: Swim instructors from the YMCA program with Lorena’s Stankevich’s first and second grade class.

Over the course of a week in the fall, Camp Orkila provides free swimming lessons for first through fourth graders. The half-hour, daily sessions are an opportunity for kids to learn a critical life skill.

“Living on an island, we want all the kids to know how to swim,” said first and second grade teacher Lorena Stankevich. “And it boosts Susie Frank’s swim lessons at the health club and Orkila’s summer camp.”

Five years ago, Orcas Middle and High School Principal Kyle Freeman approached Camp Orkila Director Dimitri Stankevich about offering a swimming class for elementary students. Orkila partners with its YMCA head office in Seattle to bring instructors to the island for a week of water safety basics. The program, which costs around $4,000, is paid for by the camp’s annual fundraising campaign.

“It is so important for the kids in our community to be exposed to the water,” Dimitri said.

The course teaches children some of the technical strokes of swimming but also covers water safety topics like how to wear a life-jacket and help someone who needs assistance in the water. The students are bussed over from the public school for time in the outdoor pool.

A 2014 survey done on behalf of the American Red Cross showed that only 56 percent of Americans can perform the five core swimming skills – that means 44 percent don’t know basic water-safety skills.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day around 10 people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States.

“Living in the Northwest, where we are surrounded by water, being safe on the water is a commitment that we make,” said Jan Bretana, who is the director of aquatics for YMCA of Greater Seattle. “Watching the progression of these kids from year to year is so exciting.”

For the Orcas course, Bretana chooses her best teachers from the 14 branches that she oversees.

“The instructors leave very enriched,” she said. “It’s a neat, reciprocal program. Everybody wins.”

Bretana says she would like to bring the teachers up several times a year and even offer sessions in the sound.

“The pool has warm, controlled water,” she said. “The next step is to take them out in the ocean.”