The city of Bakersfield’s Recreation and Parks Department partnered with Kaiser Permanente, First 5 Kern and USA Swimming to offer swim lessons, water safety programs and information on healthy choices. The department searched for grants and partnerships to teach water safety and healthy choices in order to improve community health. After creating the Make a Splash and Operation Splash programs, the city was able to offer $5 swim lessons and successfully taught more than 450 kids how to swim.

According to the Kern County Network for Children 2014 Report Card, the city of Bakersfield has the third largest child population among California counties. The same report indicated that 28 percent of families in Kern County raise their children with incomes below the poverty level and 69 percent of the county’s children were eligible to receive free or reduced price meals as compared to 58 percent statewide.

Drowning is the leading cause of death for children under age four and the second leading cause of death for adolescents under age 14. In Kern County alone, from 2000-2012, 47 children drowned. The cost of swim lessons in city pools is $50 per person, but due to the low income of many Bakersfield families this cost was prohibitive, especially for families with more than one child. The city’s recreation and parks staff pursued grants and partnerships to be able to offer swim lessons for $5 in order to encourage more children to learn to swim.

With high rates of diabetes and heart disease, and 60 percent of its population considered obese, Kern County residents are considered some of the unhealthiest in the state. Over 24 percent of the residents report no physical activity and many of the children are not able to meet the minimum fitness standards when testing for the California Physical Fitness Test.

Swimming is a physical skill that can be used throughout a lifetime as fitness. The activity can increase confidence and also make people safer when participating in other activities in the water. According to USA Swimming statistics, participation in formal swim lessons reduces the risk of childhood drowning by 88 percent. Nationally, 70 percent of African American children cannot swim, and 60 percent of Latino children cannot swim. Children from non-swimming families are eight times more likely to be at-risk of drowning than those from families that have learned to swim. Kern County’s population mix is 49 percent Latino, 6 percent African American and 37 percent Caucasian. Offering low cost swimming lessons became a priority in Bakersfield due to its proximity to the Kern River, canals, lakes and ponds combined with the county’s demographics. Non-swimmers could also learn about water safety tips, what to avoid and even how to assist their children in and around water.

Additionally, the recreation and parks staff wanted to expand on healthy living, healthy choices and begin educating the public on the high sugar contents of many of the drinks that their families consume regularly. According to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, over 63 percent of children in Kern County consume one or more sodas per day. For children, each extra can or glass of sugary beverage consumed per day increases their chance of being obese by 60 percent, according to the Obesity and Sugary Beverage Fact Sheet, Project Lean.

In order to offer affordable swim lessons and inform the public about water safety and healthy choices, the recreation and parks department created two programs, Make a Splash and Operation Splash. In 2014, the city received three grants totaling $88,618.

Donations, grants and sponsorships for water safety education and ReThink Your Drink campaign in 2014 totaled $97,812.58. The recreation and parks department exceeded expectations in offering swim lessons, water safety programs and healthy choice information. Through the First 5 Kern Make a Splash and Kaiser Permanente Operation Splash and USA Swimming Foundation grants, 901 participants used the discounted swim lessons in 2014.

In 2014, the swim lesson participants totaled (regular price swim lessons included) 2,071 children, 72 day camp participants and 47 adults. This was a 17.4 percent increase from the previous year. Offering more swim lessons to a greater number of people with diverse backgrounds increased the number of learning opportunities for safe water activities year round.

Participation in The World’s Largest Swim Lesson, where simultaneous lessons were being held around the world helped spread the message that swimming lessons save lives. Locally, 78 participants helped break the Guinness World Record of simultaneous swim lessons.

Staff presented American Red Cross Water Safety Education to 3,701 pre-school aged children through the First 5 Kern Make a Splash program grant, exceeding the program goal of 3,340.

Additionally, 766 participants signed the pledge to “Rethink your Drink” for their families to consume fewer drinks loaded with sugar.

Overall attendance in all four city pools in 2014 was 180,927; a 9 percent increase over the previous year, and a record high attendance in Bakersfield’s public pools. These programs have been well-received by the public and are making a difference in educating the public about healthy choices, water safety and learning about taking personal responsibility for individual health.

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Originally posted at the League of CA Cities.