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Swimming with the dolphins

By Roger Greene
and Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Shiera Laraya slipped cautiously from the edge of the pool into the shallow water at the Georgetown County Family YMCA. Kelly Weaver, the YMCA’s aquatics director, put a blue foam “noodle” under Shiera’s arms and took hold of the girl’s outstretched hands.

Shiera hopped along the pool bottom, but as Weaver guided her forward, Shiera stretched her legs out behind her and started to kick. Weaver pulled Shiera around in a circle, talking softly as the second-grader continued kicking.

Back at the side, Shiera dipped her head in the water to wash a stray wisp of hair from her eyes, and climbed up to take her place with the other girls in her Waccamaw Elementary School second-grade class. The school, which has a dolphin for a mascot, is taking advantage of swim lessons the Georgetown County YMCA began offering to all county second-graders in the fall.

“It’s been a fantastic program so far,” Weaver said. “[YMCA executive director] Amy Brennan had a vision of what this program could be and she and the school district worked together to make it happen. It’s uplifting for us to be able to work so closely with the community.”

“Our students definitely had fun,” said Melissa Cribb, one of school’s four second-grade teachers whose classes attended Friday’s lessons. “They had a chance to shine and it was encouraging to see them working together and cheering each other on.”

Shiera told her teacher before they left for the bus ride to the YMCA that she was worried the water would be over her head. She gained confidence from the first lesson with Weaver and when her turn came up again, she wanted to try something different.

“Show me how you like to swim,” Weaver said.

Shiera took a deep breath, submerged and took a few breast strokes toward the opposite side of the pool. Her head popped up like a cork, she took another breath and kept on going.

“A lot of students, especially those who haven’t been around water much, are nervous when we first start,” Weaver said. “We encourage them to ask questions, and when we are in the water we’re always reassuring them. We’re there with them, we’re not going to let them go and we’re only going to do what they are comfortable doing.

“It’s amazing to see the progress that can be made. As the lessons continue, they get more used to the water. They’re jumping in, having a blast and asking when they can come back.”

“I don’t swim much,” Shiera said. “I was a little afraid, but Ms. Weaver made it fun.”

Of the 161 second-graders at Waccamaw Elementary, 146 signed up for the program. Nearly half of them were at the YMCA on Friday. The Waccamaw Elementary students will continue their lessons every Friday for the next three weeks. In April, four more classes will participate.

“The swimming lessons are very different from our everyday routine,” Cribb said. “Getting to do something like this is like a reward for the students. It’s something they enjoy and they are very willing to volunteer and participate.”

“Our students grow up around a lot of water,” said Kat Loftus, whose class also participated in Friday’s lessons. “It’s important for them to learn to swim. They need to be able to handle certain situations that could occur.”

Each lesson lasts 45 minutes and there are roughly 20 students in each class. Second-graders were chosen due to characteristics that are common within the age group.

“It’s a good group to work with,” Weaver said. “They understand directions, listen well and are capable of handling the physical aspects that are required.”

The primary reason given by parents who didn’t enroll their children in the program was the kids were already proficient swimmers. However, the lessons offered students not only the chance to build upon existing skills or acquire new skills, but also to bond with classmates.

“The Y is an awesome addition to the public schools,” Waccamaw Elementary principal Vervatine Reid said. “We’ve been asking for a public pool for umpteen years.”

“Second-graders love hands-on experiences,” said Loftus. “They loved being out of the classroom and having a chance to do something different. They had fun and got a start not only learning a life-saving skill like swimming, but also sharing that experience with their classmates.”

Weaver said the Waccamaw students are generally more proficient in the water than some county students, but as she and Josh Jordan, a YMCA instructor, worked with individuals, they found the skill levels ranged widely. Some who raised their hand when the group was asked who knew how to swim weren’t sure where to start when they got in the water. And some who could make forward progress benefited from some pointers.

“You have a great doggy paddle,” Jordan told one boy. “We’re going to show you a new way.”

Students were also asked to float on their backs, which was a new experience for some.

“I loved floating,” Madison Cline said. “It was a whole bunch of fun.”

“I really liked floating on my back,” Shiera said. “You just have to lay your head down and relax.”

Weaver said that while floating can be a favored part of the lessons, it pales in comparison to a more active pursuit.

“Hands down, across the board, the kids love jumping in the water,” Weaver said. “They’re always excited when we go over that. And honestly, it’s a good skill. They need to understand how to go in feet first and deal with the sudden immersion.”

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