Free YMCA program teaches kids to swim

Tish O’Keefe works with a student at the Whatcom Family YMCA, where a local version of “Safety Around Water” is planned this year.
Tish O’Keefe works with a student at the Whatcom Family YMCA, where a local version of “Safety Around Water” is planned this year. Courtesy to The Bellingam Herald

If Bill Ziels and Tish O’Keefe fulfill their goal, at least several hundred Whatcom County first graders will learn to swim safely this spring and summer.

“Our dream is to provide this new learn-to-swim program to more than 1,000 county first grade boys and girls in our first year,” said Ziels, the CEO of Whatcom Family YMCA. “This program is free and it’s only made possible through the sponsorship of Phillips 66.”

O’Keefe, the aquatics director, has planned the local version of “Safety Around Water,” a new national YMCA program, so that each first grader will get plenty of individual attention from a trained instructor.

The program, with sign-ups currently on-going, begins during spring break April 4-8. There will be five half-hour instructional periods, Monday through Friday, with many more weekly sessions to come.

“Our ultimate goal is for our students to learn swim-float-swim,” O’Keefe said. “The idea is to teach kids how to swim, then learn to roll over and float on their backs to rest and get energy back, then swim again.”

She said the students will first acclimate themselves to water, then learn to be comfortable putting their faces in the pool and submerging. They will be taught to orient themselves to the wall and how to float and to keep calm, which is vital for young swimmers.

“Our goal at the end of the five days is that children will have the skills to save their lives,” said O’Keefe. That’s especially true if children unexpectedly find themselves in water, she pointed out, noting that three American children drown every day, on average, and that drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children 5 to 14 years old.

Parents need to know that 10 percent of all drowning deaths occur no more than 10 feet from safety.

“All children deserve access to water safety resources that not only could save their lives, but enrich them with an outlet for fun, healthy activity,” she said.

Ziels would like to make the program permanent.

“Our hope in that this is the inaugural year,” he said. “Our mission is to provide water safety knowledge to all youth in Whatcom County.”

O’Keefe said each student will be evaluated after the first session to determine what needs to be learned and stressed to help that student gain confidence, since children approach swimming in so many different ways.


▪ We (parents or other adults) will always watch children around water;

▪ We will stay within arm’s reach of young children in the water;

▪ We will swim near a lifeguard;

▪ We will reach or throw, not go, to help a swimmer who is in trouble;

▪ We will learn CPR;

▪ We will enroll children in swim lessons.              


Contact Tish O’Keefe at 360-733-8630, ext. 122, or tokeefe@whatcomymca.org.