Getting the Pensacola Water Safety Day off to a fun start are Harry Walker, shown at left, and Jack Lynch, right, with their friend, Howard the Duck.
PENSACOLA, Fla. – Summertime means swimming and sun for Florida children. It’s only natural that water safety courses would be plentiful in the Sunshine State, and it seems most kids should know how to swim in their toddler years. But, that’s not always the case.
“You would be surprised at the number of second-graders who won’t even put their heads underwater,” says Jack Lynch, a sales associate with the Gulf Real Estate Group in Pensacola and a member of the Pensacola Association of Realtors® community relations committee.
So, it’s no wonder that the local Realtor association would choose swim safety as a way to connect with the community. For years, the Pensacola Association of Realtors community relations committee had a free swim program for second graders.
“Realtors and business partners with the Association would go into the second-grade classrooms, do a lesson on water safety and, at the end of the session, each child would receive a voucher for 10 free swim lessons at the city pool in Pensacola,” Lynch recalls.
For four years, the program ran just like that. Then, Lynch came on board.
He says, “My wife was the swim coach at a middle school, so I was used to being at swim meets. In 2011, I was named the vice chair (of the community relations committee). The chair and I looked at what the group was doing and there was very little member participation other than to donate money. We thought, we aren’t the check-writing committee, so we decided to shake things up.”
They first did that by dressing up in old-timey bathing suits, holding rubber duckies. “The kids loved that,” he says. But, the committee members wanted to take it even further.
They discovered there is an International Water Safety Day.
“We decided to take the free swim program and turn it into an event,” says Lynch. They still do the classroom sessions but, the week after the classroom event, the kids go on a field trip to a local pool where they get swim lessons.”
That started in 2012, when Lynch and his friend and business associate Harry Walker reached out to the school district, the city parks and recreation office, the Greater Pensacola Aquatic Club and the Coast Guard Flotilla and talked them into allowing the kids to go on the field trip to swim.
The school district gave the group a curriculum for volunteer swimmers to use to assess each child’s water ability. Members of the above groups and volunteers from the Pensacola Association worked with each child.
“There are no more than two swimmers to each volunteer,” says Lynch. “It’s an entire day of helping second graders become more aware of how to be safe around water. As the program grew, we added more schools. We now work with 16 schools,” he says.
They are also pulling in more outside groups including the Florida Department of Health, the Department of Children and Family, the U.S. Navy and Sacred Heart Hospital Trauma Center.
He adds, “Not only do they send volunteers, but they are major sponsors. We reached a point where we could not physically do more one-day events, so we expanded it to a spring event and a fall event,” he says. They also give each child a t-shirt and a goodie bag.
Lynch and his group decided they needed to make it an official nonprofit organization called Water and Youth Safety Pensacola, so they could solicit funding to pay bus drivers, substitute teachers and more.
“We still get support from the Pensacola Association,” he says. About 450 to 500 second graders attend the events in groups through the day.
“It’s so rewarding. At the end last year, this little guy gave me a high five, and he said, ‘Best day ever,’ says Lynch. “It turns out he is an autistic student and that day meant the world to him.”
And that meant the world to Lynch and his fellow volunteers.