On a sunny afternoon the first weekend of summer vacation, the Christensen family of Brookings took visiting out-of-state friends to play in the Chetco River at Loeb State Park.
Jenny Christensen recalls a “big discussion” about whether their children would be using lifejackets.
With lifejackets on, Christensen’s daughter, Ella, 9, and two other girls decided to try swimming out to the rock in the park’s popular swimming hole. Suddenly, the visiting 11-year-old was in trouble as she crossed the river’s current.
“Just her face was above the water,” said Christensen, who was watching from shore with the older girl’s mother. She said neither she nor the girl’s mother are adept in the water.
“It was so scary,” Christensen said. “We were watching her be swept down the river in slow motion. There seemed no way those girls were getting back to shore on their own.
“I remember thinking, ‘How does Ella know what to do?’”
Ella knew exactly what to do. She used “big arms” to swim toward her friend, and a “loud voice” and direct eye contact with the nearest adults as she called for help.
All without screaming or panicking, said her mother.
Attracted by Ella’s actions, three women on shore dove in to help all three girls back to safety, said Christensen.
How did Ella know what actions to take in such an emergency? Just a week prior, she had participated in annual third-grade water safety lessons - a project funded and facilitated by the Rotary Club of Brookings-Harbor, in partnership with Kalmiopsis Elementary School and the City of Brookings.
“Man, was I ever grateful for those lessons,” Christensen said. “I didn’t put it together (the lessons and Ella’s actions), but Ella did.”
“We’ve always felt that providing these water safety lessons every year could potentially save a child’s life,” said Rotary Club president Bonnie Jordan. “This is the first time we’ve gotten concrete proof that it has.”
Jordan said the lessons are provided at the end of the school year, when the young students are likely to be around water at a naturally curious age. The project includes classroom instruction, as well as 30 minutes in the city pool every day for a week.
During the youngsters’ first day in the water, organizers determined that half the third-graders either had never been in the water, had no water skills, or were afraid of the water. Yet they all were willing to give it a try.
As part of the lessons, volunteers worked with the children in small groups. The water activities were based on the skill level of each group, with special safety lessons provided for everyone that included an opportunity to try floating in lifejackets, grabbing a rescue ring, and lying down on the pool deck to pull a friend back to the wall.
Ella took additional swim lessons over the summer, said her mother, adding that water safety lessons are “imperative” for third-graders.
Jordan said the lessons are one of the club’s favorite projects, although only one project among many. “Being a member of the Rotary Club of Brookings-Harbor gives us many opportunities to positively impact our community and the world as a whole,” Jordan said. “It’s purposeful, meaningful and unbelievably rewarding.”
Charlie Kocher is a member of the Brookings-Harbor Rotary Club. For more information about the club, call Bonnie Jordan at 541-961-6553.