WALLA WALLA - As most area children returned to school this past week, their parents were not the only ones to breathe a sigh of relief.
Throughout the Walla Walla Valley, kids worked on swimming skills this summer, learning for the first time or growing stronger in the water through lessons and practice.
That's good news to recreation professionals like Randy Grant, executive director of the Walla Walla YMCA, and J.R. Loe, who runs the swimming program at the facility.
The tragic news of six teens drowning in Louisiana at the beginning of this month set off a national wave of concern regarding the number of people who die in the water as a result of not knowing how to swim.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 people drown in this country every day. And it used to be a higher number in the early years of his career, Grant said.
"I will say that today we lose half the number of children to drowning than we did when I started in the Y. If it were not for the leadership of entities like the Y and the Red Cross, we would have more drownings, not less."
A study done two years ago by the USA Swimming Foundation found that in ethnically diverse communities, the youth drowning rate is 2-3 times higher than the national average. Nearly six out of 10 African-American and Latino children are unable to swim, almost twice the rate as their Caucasian counterparts.
The key indicator, the foundation said, is not race, but family - children from non-swimming households are eight times more likely to be at-risk of drowning.
Low swimming skills are also linked with parental income, the foundation report said.
In the study, which collected data at YMCAs, 67 percent of poor swimmers come from households with income less that $50,000; 66 percent of those participating said the children in the home were on free or reduced-price school lunch programs and 12 percent of that population self-reported they were not able to swim. This figure is almost twice that reported by those who do not qualify for free school lunch programs.
Data show two key barriers prevent children from learning to swim - fear of injury or drowning, and lack of parental encouragement.
He sees it nearly every day, Loe said. "The kids who benefit the most are those who have parents who are supportive and taking an active role about their children's safety in water."
It's not unusual to have grandparents haul in grandchildren for swimming lessons, as well, he said. "They want their grandchildren to be safe."
The YMCA offers lessons for all ages, starting with babies with parents, to preschoolers to older folks who never learned to swim when young.
That's where it gets interesting to watch, Loe explained. The sheer courage of a non-swimming adult in facing his or her fears to get into the pool is nothing short of amazing, he said.
"It is often because they realize they are endangered around a water area. They want to know they could save themselves if they fell in the water."
Prisca Crabtree knows how that feels. Now 61, the labor and delivery nurse learned to swim just seven years ago, she said.
Growing up in Cuba, Crabtree was terrorized by older brothers who told her alligators were just waiting for her in the water. "I was always afraid. I was so scared of the ocean. I lived in Puerto Rico for 14 years, but I stayed on an air mattress (while in the water) ... it took a lot of courage to even do that."
More maybe, to face things head on. She loved the water and wanted to love swimming, so Crabtree signed up for lessons with Loe at the Y, in a class with others her age. "I had to overcome a huge fear."
She knew she had done so when she went to Florida for the birth of her niece, the nurse said. "I went swimming with my brother (who, when told of the suffering he had caused her, was aghast) and I didn't realize how far I was from the beach. I just had to get back."
But she heard Loe's words in her head, Crabtree said, and turned over onto her back and swam ashore.
Crabtree made sure her own children knew how to swim, she added. "If I didn't have the chance, my kids were going to. Parents have to persist, even if it costs money. It will pay off, the children will know they can save themselves in the water."
Linnea Davis, director of the Walla Walla University aquatic center, believes most families in this area value swim lessons for kids - lessons she says should begin by six months of age. "By far it's the best thing they can do for their kids."
The school offers swim lessons to the public and sees mostly Caucasian families take advantage of that, Davis said.
She also sees non-swimming adults come in, people trying to work through some sort of past event that put water on keel with an enemy in their mind, she said. "They don't want to even put their face in the water."
About 90 percent of those adults do eventually learn how to swim, she said. "And 100 percent at least get comfortable and overcome their fear."
For kids enrolled in Camp Fire USA's Super Summer in the Park program, swimming time comes twice a week and has for nearly a decade, said Karen Wolff, executive director.
"I just feel that every child should learn to swim, regardless of their families income," she said. "Every child should have memories of swimming."
For many kids, those trips to the pool with Camp Fire are the only opportunity they have to swim, particularly in lower-income families, Wolff said. Campers who don't know how to swim are given life jackets and kept in the shallow end of the pool until they can pass a basic swim test allowing them into the deep end.
"The stronger swimmers are the ones who have done swimming lessons or are able to go to the Y a lot," said Kaila Rodighiero, the summer site director.
More than one in five fatal drowning victims are children age 14 and younger, notes the CDC report. For every child who drowns, another four received emergency care for nonfatal submersion injuries.
Even when someone survives a water incident, resulting brain damage can result in long-term disabilities, including memory and learning problems and permanent loss of basic functioning.
Society is doing a disservice to children by not making swimming essential and a requirement, Grant said.
While the YMCA does help some families pay for swim lessons through scholarships and the schools do bring student in for lessons, there are not enough swim facilities or enough teachers, lifeguards or pool time to make it available to all, he pointed out.
"Factor in that parents that don't feel comfortable pass on this fear. Factor in, also, not just the cost financially but also the time requirement parents have to commit to get their child to the pool, dressed, sit during lessons, change, drive home and then get back into their daily routine. Parents need gold medals for getting their kids to learn to swim."
The community is doing a lot to improve the situation, Grant surmised. "But as long as there are drownings, have we truly done enough?"