City swim program for second-graders finding success in Virginia Beach

A city swim program that aims to increase water safety among children by offering free lessons to Virginia Beach second-graders is growing rapidly since its launch in fall 2014.

Students on the Swim now has partnerships with about 10 schools and participation from more than 1,000 students at five rec centers, according to Teri Dalone, the aquatic coordinator for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. That’s up from four schools and roughly 500 students when the program started in October 2014.

Stacy Sedory, the assistant principal at Newtown Elementary, one of the early participants, said the program is especially helpful given Virginia Beach’s proximity to water. The students at her school loved it, she said.

“It built confidence for the kids,” she said. “It gave them something to look forward to.”

Fatal drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death in children ages 1 to 14, according to the Parks & Recreation Department. Students on the Swim was designed to help children learn the basics of swimming and help prevent those accidents, Dalone said.

Students learn the basics of water safety and swimming techniques in the Students on the Swim program. (Courtesy of vbgov.com)
Students learn the basics of water safety and swimming techniques in the Students on the Swim program. (Courtesy of vbgov.com)

Parents must give permission for their child to participate. The program is financed primarily through donations, particularly from City Council members, School Board members, businesses and organizations. Most of the money is used on instructors and transportation; some is also used to buy swimsuits and towels for students who cannot afford them, Dalone said.

The students are evaluated and placed into smaller groups based on their water-skill level. Each 45-minute class is taught at a rec center by three to five Red Cross-certified swim instructors. The 10-day program teaches students the fundamentals of swimming and water safety, as well as stroke improvement, development and refinement.

“Day one is a little chaotic,” Dalone said. “It’s like a field trip. Normally by day three you see that’s when things start changing.”

The program is also open to students with disabilities.

“We had a girl in a wheelchair and they were able to accommodate that,” Sedory said. “There’s no one that can’t do it.”

The program was so successful in its first year that it received statewide recognition. The Virginia Recreation & Park Society named it the “best new program” at its annual conference.

Councilwoman Rosemary Wilson and donor Petra Snowden were also honored at the conference with Distinguished Volunteer Service Awards for their involvement with the program. Snowden, who owns Acoustical Sheetmetal Inc., is one of its primary donors, while Wilson helped the city’s Parks & Recreation Department partner with the school district to get it started.

It wasn’t easy. Wilson said it took about six years to get the school district on board. She credited a meeting she had with the deputy superintendent at the time, Shelia Magula, to get it to participate.

“I’m thrilled because the government and the schools should represent the community,” Wilson said. “We’re a water community.”

The program hits home for Wilson. She said she almost drowned when she was 4 and had to be rescued by a lifeguard.

Have a story idea or news tip? Contact schools reporter Kelly Kultys at Kelly@SouthsideDaily.com or 757-490-2750.

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