Volunteers of the Month: Head Start Water Safety Group

Nov 25, 2014, 13:04 PM by

In this month's Volunteer of the Month blog, we're doing something a little different. Instead of simply interviewing one volunteer, we are featuring a very special group of volunteers. In the past, we've written about our Head Start Water Safety Program, but we've never gone in-depth about the group of volunteers who have made this program a reality. So in this month's spotlight we introduce you to eight people who are changing lives. 


It's mid-morning and the sounds of splishing and splashing echo off the tiles that cover nearly every surface in the large, sunny pool room at the Mapleton Y. It's a blustery fall day in Boulder, and the indoor pool is bustling. The glassy surface bobs and bounces as lap-swimmers cut their paths.

It all seems pretty normal—uninteresting even—until a large group gathers in the far corner of the pool.

Eight volunteers and a handful of Y aquatics staffers begin to teach a dozen or so young children basic water safety skills. Their parents and educators anxiously watch from the bleachers. The kids are from Boulder County Head Start; most have never had swimming lessons and a few have never been in a swimming pool. The program began more than a year ago, and since then, the Y has given four different groups of children, totaling around 100 kids, pivotal water safety lessons. It began as a dream; the organization had lost several children due to drowning in recent years, and the Y had offered to help, for free, using staff and volunteers.

head-start-swimming-volunteerWhile different groups of kids have come and gone—and even some Y staff members have come and gone— the volunteer group has stayed staunch and strong in their role. They are here to make a difference, they are here to save lives, they are here because they love it.

Before they were volunteers, most of the men and women were students in a class. The Y Senior Pool Fitness class—to be specific. They met three times a week. When the Y approached them to help with the new Head Start program, Jane Crabtree, Bob Nelson, Don Pasko, Liz Robinson, Keith and Irene Ponsford, Margaret Cleary, Jeanne Phipps and Annamarie Burtness all said yes. Luckily so. The group soon found that the program was more than just about helping the kids. It became an invaluable opportunity for giving. They learned what many volunteers already know: Helping others is incredibly satisfying.

"To see them make progress and feel comfortable in the water and to learn things that could save their lives, to see that, that’s the reward," says volunteer Liz Robinson.

Bob Nelson, who speaks with energy and brightness when talking about the program, says the reward comes from watching the children go from clutching the side of the pool to using floatation devices to floating in the water by themselves. The pay-off is in seeing the kids transform.

"I truly believe I get more out of it than they do. We just enjoy seeing them so much," he says with a smile.

For each of the volunteers, the program has meant something different. For Margaret Cleary, it has brought back the memories and joy of teaching her own children how to swim decades ago. She is thankful for the opportunity and the faith the Y and Head Start have had in her.

head-start-encouragement"I think this whole activity is about trust," she says. "The trust (the Y) gave us in inviting us to participate in the program at a time in our lives when we are doubtful about ourselves with our health and energy, our hearing, our sight. The Y trusted us. From a personal point of view, that's tremendous. It’s the trust you put in us that we now turn toward the children, and we see the trust they have in us as well."

For some of the volunteers—most of whom have grown children and even grown grandchildren—this has been a chance to connect with a younger generation, to bond with children and to get their "grandchild fix." They love feeling needed and respected. Keith Ponsford enjoys hearing his young swimmers call him "Mr. Keith." And in the end, the volunteers know the impact they are potentially having on these kids.

head-start-glee"Knowing about the rivers and lakes and irrigation ditches around here, knowing that we usually lose a toddler to drowning each year, you've got to believe that the program is equipping these children with skills," Nelson says. "I strongly believe in my heart that it is having an impact."

Nearly every child who has come through the program has had some sort of "breakthrough," a moment in which the child overcomes a hurdle in either skill or attitude. Often it's about overcoming fear. Keith Ponsford knows a child has met a milestone when they say, "I can do it by myself." And once they have that "aha moment," the kids begin to thrive.

"They come in each time frightened and estranged and sort of looking at other children and the people on the side of the pool. They look at everything but me," Cleary says. "As the trust builds up, I see them go from looking at other people to looking at themselves and what they are doing."

Beyond the hard skills the kids are being taught—how to get in and out of water, floating on their back, blowing bubbles, rolling over in water, kicking, paddling and more—there are soft skills that the children absorb as well. The volunteers say they see confidence being built as well as trust in adults. They see the kids learning to follow instructions, even when there are language differences, and developing increased self awareness.

"They are confident," says Irene Ponsford. "They know enough that when they leave, if they are in a pool or fall into a body of water, they can save themselves. They go away with more safety education."

The confidence comes with taking chances with the help of their newfound mentors, seeing their own abilities in action and overcoming that fear. The skill and confidence go hand in hand, and eventually become what matters most. That's an end goal that keeps these volunteers coming back each session.

"We just want these kids to be safe around water and to not be harmed if they happen to fall into something that’s greater than their depth," says volunteer Jeanne Phipps. "That’s our goal, we want to save lives."


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