A lifeguard high fives a participant after successfully swimming across the pool.
A lifeguard high-fives a camper after he successfully swims across the pool. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Shrieks of excitement echoed through the Calderon Branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Antonio, where 100 children gathered on Tuesday for the first day of water safety camp.

Leading one line to get into the pool was 5-year-old Elena, who stared at the water cautiously while tugging at her braided pigtails as her friends eagerly dipped their hands into the pool water to check its temperature. She had only been swimming twice, she said, and “it was a very long time ago.”

Lack of access to swimming pools means minority children are far less likely to know how to swim than their white counterparts, said Angie Mock, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Antonio. Recent national data from the USA Swimming Foundation shows that 64 percent of black children and 45 percent of Hispanic children possess poor swimming ability, compared to 40 percent of white children, putting them at greater risk of drowning.

“Every summer, unfortunately, we hear horrendous stories about kids drowning, and not only are they drowning in swimming pools, but drowning due to high rains and flash flooding in drainage areas,” Mock said.

To teach children how to enjoy the water safely, camps like the one at the Calderon pool on San Antonio’s West Side are sponsored by the ZAC Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting water safety and education.

The instruction includes fundamental swim training, how to avoid drowning risks in pools and natural bodies of water, and lifesaving skills such as basic CPR and how to recognize the signs of drowning. Area first responders also educate children about how to remain safe when heavy rains create dangerous conditions in their neighborhoods.

Across the nation, nearly 15,000 kids have participated in ZAC Camps since 2011. Most of the camps are in California, Florida, and Texas, states in which a high number of drownings occur. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury death among children aged 1-14 and kills more children aged 1-4 than anything else except birth defects.

When it was time for the kids to complete their first swimming task at camp – making it across the 3-foot end of the pool by swimming or walking – Elena, herself just a few inches over 3 feet tall, let the other kids go ahead of her. She bounced on her toes toward the side wall, dragging her hand along the wall across the width of the pool as a lifeguard walked next to her, giving her encouragement.

A child smiles as she swims across the pool with encouragement from a lifeguard.
Elena smiles as she makes her way across the pool with encouragement from a lifeguard. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

While not all the campers will learn to swim in four days, simply getting them more comfortable with being in the water will make them safer, said lifeguard Zion Ramos.

“Even if you can’t swim, we all have the ability to float, but if you are uncomfortable in the water that ability will shut off,” Ramos said. “If we can teach them to be comfortable, in a life-or-death moment they will remember that they can float, which gives lifeguards more time to go get them.”

The USA Swimming study found that 87 percent of swimmers with no or low ability planned to go swimming at least once in the summer of 2017, when the survey was conducted, and 34 percent planned to swim 10 or more times.

Angie Mock, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Antonio.
Angie Mock, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Antonio Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Water safety is deeply personal for Karen and Brian Cohn, who started the ZAC Foundation after their 6-year-old son, Zachary, died after becoming trapped in the drain of their backyard swimming pool.

The lessons of ZAC Camp are built around what the Cohns call the ABCDs of safe swimming: A for adult supervision, B for barriers around pools, C for classes to teach swimming and water safety, and D for drain safety.

Getting formal swimming lessons reduces the likelihood of a child drowning by 88 percent, according to the USA Swimming Foundation. By Friday, when the camp ends, the ZAC Foundation will have taught 600 San Antonio kids how to stay safe around water since partnering with the local Boys & Girls Clubs in 2013.

After Elena made it across the pool for the first time, she was shivering, saying she felt scared because the water went past her shoulders and up to her chin.

“But I think that I am almost ready to do it again,” she said.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.