HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – For many parts of the country, Labor Day marks the end of summer and beginning of fall. In Florida, summer weather continues for at least another month, so we can skip the jackets and keep the bathing suits out.
Unfortunately, with a nearly year-round swimming season, Florida ranks higher than any other state for accidental drownings of kids under five years old. That’s according to the Florida Department of Health. A new program in Hillsborough County aims to reach kids early and teach them life-saving swim lessons.
County Commission Ken Hagan began the Swimmer Safety Awareness pilot program in the Head Start classrooms. “We wanted to target those that were at the greatest risk,” said Hagan. This pilot program provided nearly 1,000 Head Start students with eight 30-minute sessions in the pool and classroom time to learn swimming techniques.
One of those students was Christian Jones-Van Pelt who was three years old at the time. “He’s new to the water, and like a lot of kids, he panics sometimes,” said Rich Van Pelt, Christian’s dad. After the Head Start swimming program, Christian and his dad were both more confident.
“Now he doesn’t have to wear his arm floaties,” said the older Van Pelt. Christian responded quickly, “No.”
This fall, the program will expand to include the Head Start students in the school system. Commissioner Hagan expects this session to reach 1,500 kids and it will not cost the parents anything.
“The county is responsible for the instruction. The school district is covering the transportation cost and we even had Bob Henriquez contribute swimming suits and goggles to the kids,” said Hagan.
Officials with Head Start know that the addition of the program will help families across the county.
“So many of our parents can’t afford swim lessons for their children, and during the summer our children are always around the pool,” said Patrice Woods with Hillsborough County Head Start.