San Diego County’s greatest attribute–its miles of beautiful beaches–is also one of its biggest threats. So are its countless swimming pools that make it Southern California’s version of the “land of 10,000 lakes.”
Drowning is the second leading cause of death for children under 14 and near-drownings leave thousands of Americans brain damaged every year.
Turtle Aquatics, a Southwestern College hosted program founded by Richard Mason, has taught legions of children from the community to swim. Jennifer Harper, a SWC physical education professor and water polo coach, said the Turtle Aquatics can be a lifesaver.
“Living in San Diego where there is a pool in every other backyard and being so close to the ocean, it’s really important that we offer lessons especially to children,” she said. “(Drowning is) absolutely preventable so it’s important for me to make sure we have a program like this since we have an available pool for kids to learn how to swim.”
Turtle Aquatics was originally geared for families of SWC staff but has expanded into a community program under Harper.
“We have a great success rate with our students and we offer lessons for kids with disabilities,” she said. “We really try to cater our programs to be successful for kids, for moms and families.”
SWC’s swim facilities are and should continue to be a community asset, Harper said.
“We’re supporting our community. It’s a goal to offer kids the opportunity to swim because they need to learn how, it’s a milestone,” she said. “It’s like learning how to ride a bike, it’s something that you’ll never forget.”
Julia Sanchez, 29, is a water safety instructor and lifeguard at SWC.
She said she was 15 years old when she first took swim lessons.
“Turtle Aquatics gives the community the opportunity to learn how to swim,” she said. “Not just the students and staff of the college, but the kids and adults of Chula Vista. There’s water everywhere, and it’s really easy to fall in a pool, especially for kids. They don’t see the danger in anything.”
Ryan Baloy, the father of a Turtle Swimmer, said it is much easier to teach a child new tricks.
“When they’re at a younger age, they don’t really care too much, they just want to jump in,” he said. “As you get a little older and you don’t know how to swim, it becomes more difficult because you don’t want others to know that you don’t know how to swim. Throwing them in and seeing how long it takes for them to learn can be traumatizing, this is much more organized.”
“Children have a general fear of water, but when it continues until they’re adults, it becomes very difficult and they have to be brave to get in the water,” said Harper. “I have several students in my classes that have overcome their fear and now they love the water.”
Six-year-old George Carver overcame his fear of water as a Turtle Swimmer said his mother, Tamara Carver.
“I found out about the program through my son’s kindergarten class because last year he almost drowned in the pool at a friend’s house,” she said. “George already had a problem getting into the pool because he was scared from last time, but after three sessions, he has no problem. He’s a lot more comfortable and my daughter just started diving yesterday, so we love it.”
Apart from letting the fears of the water float away, the young Turtle Swimmers enjoy their time in the pool.
“I like to do the underwater dance,” said 4-year-old Riley Baloy. “I like jumping in and I like the water more now.”
Riley’s father, Ryan Baloy, also said the program has done a lot for his son.
“He actually overcame his fear of water by seeing the other kids his own age jumping in and learning how to swim,” he said. “It makes them feel a lot better because they’re with their peers having fun. It’s a lot more organized and they feel like they’re learning something new everyday.”
With passionate instructors like Agustin Ablos, the students are learning from the best.
“I started swimming when I was two and I think every kid should learn how to swim,” said Ablos. “It’s pretty sad when a kid drowns and dies, it’s completely preventable. If I can get a kid swimming, I’m happy. I don’t have to teach them all the strokes or anything, I’m just happy if they swim.”