LEWISTON — In the wake of two child drownings in Lewiston and Auburn in the past two months, local interest in water safety training and swimming lessons is rising, according to officials at the YWCA of Central Maine.
The YWCA, on East Avenue in Lewiston, is home to the only public indoor pool in Lewiston-Auburn following the closure of the Auburn-Lewiston YMCA pool early this year.
The most recent incident — when 13-year-old Rayan Issa drowned during a Lewiston Middle School field trip to Range Pond State Park last week — has put renewed focus on not only swimming ability but also on safety training for adults.
“It seems to just be more awareness, and people looking to be proactive,” said Linda Sherman, the YWCA aquatics director.
In April, Valerio McFarland was swept away when he fell into the Androscoggin River at Bonney Park in Auburn. When his older brother, Maxim, attempted to save him, he barely escaped with his life.
Valerio was 5 years old and on a dangerous river, but those close to the Range Pond investigation have said Rayan went underwater while playing football with friends in a roped-off area, and that he might not have known how to swim.
The school department’s law firm is investigating district policies on trips where swimming is allowed, and the events that led up to the incident.
Sherman says awareness is growing following the recent deaths. She said on top of regular swim lessons, there has been a surge in organizations looking for aquatic safety training for staff.
Local fundraisers are in the works to help more low-income residents and members of the immigrant community gain access to swim lessons, primarily focused on the beginner levels.
Sherman said that in response to the many questions still unanswered in the Range Pond incident, she’s hearing a lot of summer camps and local groups choosing not to go to Range Pond. Others, she said, are coming to the YWCA to have personnel get more training.
“They want their staff certified for when they go to beaches and lakes,” she said. “It looks like they’re really trying to step up their staff presence with the trainings.”
A lifeguard training session — typically three days — is underway now, and Sherman said, another session could be scheduled if needed. Only two or three people were originally signed up, but following the recent drowning, five more people joined.
Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster has said the 113 students on the seventh-grade outing at Range Pond were accompanied by 11 chaperones and one lifeguard. While groups can bring additional certified lifeguards, Lewiston didn’t during that trip.
Sherman said the YWCA has more than a dozen certified lifeguards, and that Lewiston and other schools have used those lifeguards for past trips. She said she was surprised to hear they didn’t for the recent Range Pond field trip.
Jane Morrison, interim director of the YWCA of Central Maine, said interest has spiked after the Range Pond incident.
“We do want people to know that we have lifeguards for hire,” she said.
BASIC WATER SAFETY
Steve Wallace, executive director of the Auburn-Lewiston YMCA, which shuttered its pool in January, said he’s been in discussions with Central Maine Healthcare President and CEO Jeff Brickman and Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, who Wallace said “both feel pretty strongly we need to do water safety awareness and basic water safety at the community level, not just in a pool setting.”
“We agree,” he said. “Our three organizations are still in the planning stages of the collaboration, but the goal is to have free, basic water awareness programs and then refer people who want more training to certified providers.”
Levesque recently led a charge during Auburn budget discussions for a $100,000 feasibility study at Lake Auburn outlet beach, which has been closed to swimming since 2013 because of bacteria. He argued that the swimming hole and park could be a community asset where an aquatic program could be hosted.
However, the City Council cut the study funding from the final Capital Improvement Plan budget. Instead, councilors made a verbal agreement to use $25,000 in strategic planning funds to look at the issue, but it’s unclear what will come of it.
At the YWCA, Sherman said she has not pulled together recent numbers on swim lesson registration, but she said, “I know we’ve been getting a lot of calls,” especially as the summer sets in, which is usually a slow time.
Wallace said now that the YMCA pool is closed, they are sending members to the Lewiston pool, offering financial assistance to children and families that can’t afford overall fees.
The YWCA has a range of swimming lessons, focusing on parent and child sessions and child-only sessions for various age groups.
The organization’s aquatics school also offers a course to become an American Red Cross lifeguard instructor or water safety instructor.
On June 28, the YWCA will host a basic water rescue class that’s meant for child care providers, parents or grandparents with smaller pools where a non-swimming rescue is practical.
According to a notice, the program consists of in-class lecture and in-water skills, and “provides participants with the knowledge and skills to prevent, recognize and respond to aquatic emergencies.”
Wallace said the YMCA’s long-term plan, still three to four years out, is to build a new community aquatics center with an eight-lane competition pool and a shallow, warm-water therapy and teaching pool.
In the short term, it will continue to partner with the YWCA.
“Maine is a beautiful state,” Wallace said. “To enjoy it safely, all parents and kids should at least know basic water safety. Optimally, they’d also know how to swim and perform basic water rescue. That is a high standard to get to, but the alternative is more tragedy and loss of life.”
Swim instructor Sophia Turgeon works with children in the preschool level I swim lessons class at the YWCA in Lewiston on Wednesday. From left are Kaleb Garcia, 4, of Sabattus, Amelia Lacy, 5, of Greene, Jase Levasseur, 4, of Lewiston and Mackenzie Blackwell, 3, of Bowdoin. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)