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A life-saving lesson: Olympic gold medalist organizes swim lessons for kids

The Florida Department of Children and Families says more kids under the age of 5 in the Sunshine State die from drowning compared to any other state.

CLEARWATER, Fla — As Florida's winter comes to a close – it'll be beach and pool season in no time. To get kids in elementary school ready for so much time by the water, Clearwater for Youth is making the most of P.E. classes in Pinellas County with swim lessons.

"We have found that you can give a lesson away for free but many times if that family does not have transportation, there are other things from receiving that swim lesson for free, they'd never get in the water, they'd never receive those important water safety skills," Brooke Bennett, the program developer, said.

Bennett is more than qualified for her role. She's a three-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer.

"I swam in the '96 and 2000 Olympics," Bennett explained. And the work she and others are doing has the potential to save lives.

The Florida Department of Children and Families says more children under the age of 5 in Florida die from drowning than in any other state. In 2022, there were 93 child fatalities in the Sunshine State.

"The second leading cause of accidental death is drowning from ages 5-9," Bennett said. "In Florida, the drowning rates are three times higher than the national average."

The water safety program is in coordination with the city of Clearwater, Pinellas County Schools and the Long Center. 

"It's so important because, living in Florida, we're surrounded by water. Everywhere, whether it's at the beach or a local pool," Jillian Sparks, the aquatic coordinator at the Long Center, said.

"Knowing what to do in different situations, knowing what to do if they're at the beach alone, having those life skills is just as important as reading and math fluency," Stephanie Whitaker, the principal of McMullen-Booth Elementary, explained.

With plenty of laughs and splashes – the program is giving kids a fun and safe way to feel comfortable in the water. This program is offered to children from kindergarten through second grade, giving them six water safety lessons.

Malique Rankin is a general assignment reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. You can email her story ideas at mrankin@10tampabay.com and follow her Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages.

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