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Customer Success Stories

A child’s drowning off Waukegan’s public beach at Lake Michigan led to the creation of swim safety lessons for all second graders in the city in 2017.

In order to effectively reach all children, the Waukegan Parks Foundation partnered with the Waukegan Park District to develop the Big Splash project to help reduce accidental drownings.

Waukegan Park District

The park district and WPF already offered free swim lessons to 5- and 6-year-olds as part of the SwimSmart program. And so, by working with the school district, the thinking was, if every second grader could visit the field house and learn the basics of swimming, that might help protect and empower Waukegan’s children as they grew up.

"And the Foundation said, wouldn’t it be great if every second grader could come to the field house and get a water safety lesson?" said Teddy Anderson, community relations manager with the Waukegan Park District. "If they could understand and not panic, maybe they could float and get out of trouble in the water."

Every second grader in the Waukegan public and private schools takes a field trip to the Field House Sports Fitness and Aquatics Center once during the school year, with the first schools visiting in October. "One trip per school per year, all second graders would have access," Anderson said. "They would teach water safety and swim strokes, not just swimming."

A new aquatic center addition opened in December 2016 and the whole community was excited, Anderson said. The Field House Sports, Fitness & Aquatics Center at Hinkston Park is a modern, state-of-the-art indoor facility, including a 23,000 square foot indoor aquatics center.

This was the first indoor pool in Waukegan since the YMCA closed several years earlier. The aquatic center, equipped with all Kiefer equipment, has three pools: an eight-lane lap pool, warm water therapy pool and a kiddie pool. It was partially funded through a $2.5 million grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

What were the deterrents to children swimming? Many kids didn’t own a swimsuit. Kiefer Swim Products, located nearby in Zion, donated almost 9,000 swimsuits sized for second graders, removing that barrier for their parents. The students get to keep the swimsuits.

"Our goal is to give every second grader in Waukegan an introductory water safety and swim lesson and acquaint them with the facilities at the Center. With Kiefer’s generous donation we will be able to provide each student with a swimsuit for the pool visit," said Charlotte Callahan Wozniak, vice president of the Waukegan Parks Foundation and a Waukegan District 60 school board member. "That should keep the second graders swimming for several years."

Anderson added, "They really helped us change lives."

So far, 1,320 Waukegan second graders have participated this fiscal year, according to Quincy Bejster, deputy superintendent of Sports, Fitness and Aquatics. "I can’t tell you how their faces looked, it was sheer joy." But for some kids, who had never been in water, it was also terrifying, he said.

"We’re getting the message out," Bejster said. "It’s really important to let us teach kids how to swim, to have fun in the water and stay safe. We experience in our pool a lot of kids who love to go in and jump off the board but then realize they can’t swim and one of our staff has to jump in to get them."

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one in five children who die from drowning are children 14 and younger. For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency care for nonfatal submersion injuries.

62 percent of Waukegan is Latino and 19 percent is African-American. African-American children between the ages of 5 and 19 are 5.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which looked at drowning rates from 1999 to 2010.

"We think we can make a difference here," Bejster said.

Staff members work with the visiting second graders every other Thursday. The field trips include rotating from fitness stations to sports and the pool.

After the lesson is complete, the kids pose with a thank-you banner and each student receives a family pass to come back for a future visit. The field trips, which run every other week, kicked off the first week of October. There are 27 schools in Waukegan and every second grader is scheduled to visit by May.

"We’re doing a lot of things to reach out to the community," Bejster said. "It’s a community of high need. We’re working with the schools to have kids come to the new field house for family night. We had 500 kids, moms and dads there for the most recent family night. It was amazing."

Kiefer’s mission is to help and protect swimmers of all ages and abilities and the company won a Patron of the Year Award from the Waukegan Park District.

"We are glad that we could help with such a great program," said Kiefer Past President Tom Fuller.

"Our founder, Adolph Kiefer, dedicated his life to helping swimmers of all ages and abilities and after 70 years, this is still our company’s vision. As Adolph would say, ‘Let’s keep ‘em swimming!’"