Swim program aims to prevent child drowning deaths

Swim program aims to prevent child drowning deaths

By Jennifer Fernandez

Growing up in land-locked Oklahoma, learning to swim wasn’t a high priority in Rebecca Pearson-Yates’ household. 

Nonetheless, the Greensboro mother of five made sure her children took lessons. Her youngest daughter, who will be 5 next month, started classes at the YMCA in the spring.

“It’s just necessary in order to stay safe,” she said. “They can have fun, and I won’t have to worry as much.”

Not that she doesn’t keep her eyes on the kids when they are in the water. And she stayed close to her youngest, who sported a blue and pink life vest on Monday as the family cooled off at Bur-Mil Park’s aquatic center in Greensboro.

In 2022, North Carolina lost 29 children in accidental drownings, up from 20 the year before, the latest available state data shows. It was the second highest number of deaths since 2013. There were 33 in 2014.

Nationally, the number of children who die by unintentional drowning each year could fill 11 school buses, according to Step into Swim, an initiative of the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance that is focused on teaching children to swim.

Learning to swim from a qualified instructor reduces the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children ages 1 to 4, according to Step into Swim.

“If you have a child who does not know how to swim, the likelihood that that child grows up to be an adult who can’t swim is very good,” said Jon Klein, board chairman and president of Swim For Charlie, a Durham-based nonprofit that is working on expanding its free swim safety program to school districts across the state.

“To teach a child is infinitely easier than to teach a 45-year-old who’s had 35 years, or 40 years, of fear of water under their belt,” he said.

Participants learn how to get out of a pool on their own during a Swim For Charlie session. Credit: Provided by Swim For Charlie

Drowning deaths on the rise

After decades of decline, the number of drowning deaths in the United States has been ticking up in the past few years.

More than 4,500 people nationwide died by drowning each year from 2020 to 2022, according to a report released in May by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 500 more per year than in 2019.

Drowning rates likely increased during the COVID-19 pandemic because people spent more recreational time in or near water, and the availability of supervised swimming settings was limited, according to the May CDC report.

About 11 people in the United States drown every day, CDC data shows. Another 22 people nationwide nearly drown every day.

Children are particularly vulnerable.

More children ages 1 to 4 die from drowning than any other cause of unintentional injury death, the CDC said. Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death, following vehicle crashes, for children ages 5 to 14.

“Basic swimming and water safety skills training can reduce the risk for drowning,” the authors of the CDC report wrote. 

The increased rate of drowning deaths among young children underscores “the importance of implementing effective drowning prevention strategies including installing four-sided pool fencing; providing close, constant, and attentive supervision; using life jackets; and beginning swimming lessons as soon as children are developmentally ready,” the CDC authors wrote.

For the Tar Heel state, drowning deaths are a big concern, said Susan Braman, former manager of the Greensboro Aquatic Center and executive director of the Learn To Swim program in Guilford County.

“North Carolina has a lot of water between the coast and the lakes,” she said. “And the statistics are alarming.”

It’s never too early to start acclimating children to water, said lifeguard Taryn Kohlphenson, who is the pool manager at Bur-Mil Park.

Patience is key — and learning to float is crucial.

“You want them to get good at floating,” said Kohlphenson, who said she is already working with her toddler to get him comfortable around water.

‘Public health problem’

Klein, a retired family physician, has long advocated swimming safety to parents of his young patients.

“We have a public health problem, and we have a known, not terribly difficult treatment that we are not implementing,” he said.

Klein helped launch Swim For Charlie in 2020 as a way to address that concern and to honor his good friend, Charlie van der Horst.

More than 2,100 second graders in the Orange and Durham county school systems have learned basic swimming and water safety skills since the program started in 2020.

YouTube video

Van der Horst died in June 2019 from a cardiac event while swimming the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim. He was a longtime competitive open water swimmer.

While at van der Horst’s funeral service, Klein told another longtime friend of the van der Horst family that Charlie’s swimming friends were planning to get a plaque to honor him.

“How appropriate and inadequate,” she told him.

Klein realized she was right. Van der Horst had made such an impact on medicine and the community that he deserved more than a plaque, he said. 

Van der Horst started the first HIV clinic at UNC, Klein said. He also mentored a generation of virologists from around the world. And he developed innovative programs to decrease the transmission of HIV from pregnant women to their fetuses. Even in semi-retirement he continued to help people who needed access to hepatitis C drugs.

Closer to home, he petitioned the General Assembly to stop requiring that physicians be present for executions. He marched with the Rev. William Barber to support expanding Medicaid, which the state did last year — a decade after the option became available. 

In this 2013 photo, Dr. Charles van der Horst talks to the crowd at the Moral Monday protests about the need to expand Medicaid. After van der Horst’s death in 2019, some of his friends created Swim For Charlie, a program to teach young children basic swimming skills, as a way to honor the longtime community advocate and competitive open water swimmer. Credit: Rose Hoban/NC Health News

The group of friends got to talking about a better way to honor van der Horst.

Klein, who was still practicing medicine at the time, said he would always ask parents during their child’s wellness visits, “Is your child water safe?”

“If this child fell into water over their head, would … they know what to do to get themselves safe?”

Often, especially in low-income or minority families, the answer was no, he said.

Another group member brought up the Learn to Swim program at the Greensboro Aquatic Center, which Swim For Charlie used as a model for its program.

“And we said, boy, this is great,” he said. “Charlie loved kids. It’s taking care of a vulnerable population. It’s related to swimming. This is the perfect thing.”

Swim For Charlie added eight schools and three pools last year. It has grown from 194 participants to 1,150.

This fall, the program is expected to grow to more than two dozen schools and reach about 1,800 students, Klein said.

The goal is to add more school districts across the state.

Want to help? Swim For Charlie is looking for volunteer instructors. Click here to learn more.


Swim For Charlie prioritizes low-income and minority students because they are among groups traditionally at a higher risk of drowning.

CDC data shows that rates of drowning deaths are consistently highest among non-Hispanic Black or African Americans and non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Natives. 

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated those racial and ethnic disparities.

About one third of Black adults reported not knowing how to swim, according to a survey late last year by the National Center for Health Statistics Rapid Surveys System. Significantly fewer Black adults (36.9 percent) and Hispanic adults (28.1 percent) reported having ever taken a swimming lesson than did white adults (51.8 percent).

Barriers to swimming participation persist, the authors of the CDC report wrote, noting that a recent survey identified nearby swimming pool access, among other social and structural factors, as a major barrier to swimming skills training reported by Black and American Indian/Alaska Native U.S. residents.

Klein said he sees a “generational fear” of water in many of the students.

“Many of these kids, their grandparents were not allowed in swimming pools, so they didn’t learn how to swim,” he said. “If you can’t save them, you’re going to keep them away from water, and you’re going to teach them to be afraid of water. And so that fear, we see that on Day 1.”

Susan Braman

Braman said the vast majority of second graders in Guilford County’s Learn to Swim program have not had much exposure to swimming.

“I’d say 95 percent of them have very little experience in the water,” she said. “It always surprises me because I grew up in Fort Lauderdale. You know, it’s like, what do you mean you don’t know (how to swim)?”

Braman helped launch the Learn to Swim program in 2011 as one of the first programs at the new Greensboro Aquatic Center. 

Learn to Swim

Last school year, the Learn to Swim program in Guilford County served about 3,000 students in 48 schools. More than 15,500 second graders have gone through the free program since it started.

Braman and Greensboro Coliseum Managing Director Matt Brown modeled the program after one they had created in the 1980s in Florida. While children can learn basic swim skills at a younger age, they focused on second graders because they are the most mature group before third grade, when end of grade testing becomes such a focus that leaving campus would be more difficult, Braman said.

Learn to Swim started out as a 10-day program, then dropped to eight days and later was trimmed to five days. The focus now is teaching basics — floating, treading water, getting to the side of the pool and water safety.

The program aligns with state health and physical education requirements. About four years after the program launched, Guilford County Schools started to provide busing to pool facilities, which Braman said was a huge help. “It was a big bill. It was bigger than the instructor bill.” After the school system absorbed that cost, Learn to Swim was able to expand into more schools.

About half of the schools in the program send their second graders to learn at the Greensboro Aquatic Center, and the rest go to YMCA and other community pools that are closer to their schools.

Children in swimsuits at the edge of a pool as part of a program to prevent drowning deaths among children.

Want to help? Learn to Swim is looking for volunteer instructors. Click here to learn more.

Like Swim For Charlie, one of the biggest issues now is getting more bodies in the water to help out. Both programs — which are funded through grants and donations — try to keep the instructor-to-student ratio low, with a handful of students for each instructor. 

Adding more instructors will allow Learn to Swim to expand to the rest of the elementary schools in the district, Braman said.

In the meantime, the program continues to serve as a model to other communities in North Carolina and across the country. Braman has gotten calls from Virginia, Georgia, New Jersey, New York and other states seeking help with starting a program.

“It’s rewarding to see like the Swim For Charlie and some of the other ones that we’ve been directly involved with evolve as well,” Braman said.

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