Army Corps volunteers reach thousands of kids with water safety message
For thousands of Floridians, our waterways are among our greatest assets and sources of recreation, but they also pose the threat of drowning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kids age 14 and under are especially vulnerable, accounting for about 1 in 5 drowning deaths.
Over the last eight years, park rangers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers based at the W.P. Franklin Lock & Dam in east Lee County have worked with volunteers, the Lee County School District and others to teach basic water safety to prekindergarten through fifth-grade students.
“It really comes down to saving children’s lives,” said park ranger John Chassey. “If we can get one child to wear a life jacket … That’s one child we might be able to save from drowning.”
It’s impossible to account for lives the program may have saved, but it has reached tens of thousands of students each year, mostly in Lee County schools, but also kids in Hendry, Glades, Okeechobee and Palm Beach counties, said Phil Hart, who retired as a park ranger this year and helped start the program.
At its heart are volunteers who bring the Corps’ message to schools. They are often full-time RV travelers who like to come down here for the winter and teach the water safety curriculum during the months of October through April. In exchange for their service, the RVrs get to stay onsite at the W.P. Franklin Lock campground.
“It’s mostly retired folks that come down for the winter, and we have some locals,” Mr. Hart said. “All we give ’em is a place to stay in the winter time. These folks come out here and do this, they’re just awesome. They know it’s saving lives.”
The volunteers make the rounds to schools and give presentations that usually last 30 to 50 minutes using the Army Corps’ standard curriculum and water safety information, including a video and booklet featuring Bobber the Water Safety Dog.
There were four couples who volunteered this year: Joe and Donna Masiello, Al Roth and Barbara Flynn, Richard and Linda Veck and Jim and Ruth Arnold.
“It’s been like an extended family,” said park ranger Mr. Chassey.
They would all get together for dinner on Monday nights, and on some evenings have campfires, or visit with friends and relatives who also winter in the area.
They teach kids, for instance, the importance of learning to swim, and why and how they should always wear a proper life jacket, not blow up toys which can deflate. They stress important phrases such as “reach, throw, row, don’t go” — in other words, if your friend falls in the water, don’t go in yourself, reach out with something, throw something in that floats, or row to find an adult to help out.
But the volunteers are also encouraged to give the presentations their own spin and personality, sharing with the kids their own stories about how being safe in the water can save lives.
“Basically, we try to get their attention any way we can,” said Ms. Masiello.
This is the third season teaching water safety for Mr. and Ms. Masiello, full-time RVrs who have a home base in Crossville, Tenn., but otherwise travel the country full time, taking paying gigs as well as volunteer work.
She tells kids a story about the importance of awareness and knowledge about the water. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., her family later moved to the New Jersey shore. Knowing little about the ocean, she walked along the rocks to collect seashells as the tide came in. She luckily made it back, but bloodied from being beaten against the rocks.
“It’s rewarding when the kids come up and give you a hug and tell you thanks for what you did,” she said.
Mr. Masiello tells kids about how some 50 years ago he lost a friend, who was not wearing a life jacket, to drowning.
“The weather changed rapidly on him and it cost him his life,” he said. ¦
The Army Corps water safety program is available to schools in Lee, Hendry, Glades, Okeechobee and Palm Beach counties. To register a class or school for next year, call 239-694-2582 and ask for John Chassey or Rob Hill.
Unintentional drowning deaths in Lee County.
>> 2011: 9
>> 2012: 23
>> 2013: 12
>> 2014: 12
>> 2015: 22
— Source: Florida Department of Health