Drowning survival depends on kids learning how to float, call for help and reach the edge

Jennifer Stultz
Pratt Tribune
Pratt Swim Team coach and private lesson instructor Tonja Harrison helps Sage Eddy, 20 months, flip to his back and float during survival skills lessons Friday at Park Hills Country Club pool.

Children crying and plaintive calls for help coming from the pool area at Park Hills County Club have been disconcerting to hear and some patrons at the golf course and private club on the south side of Pratt have recently expressed concern.  But parents and managers alike have reassured all callers that what is happening in the club-owned swimming pool is a good thing, and most importantly, it's life-saving.

Tonja Harrison, Pratt, is at the center of the situation, giving swimming survival lessons to babies 6-months and older, during the months of July and August at the club pool. Harrison has been the Pratt Swim Team head coach for more than 15 years, but this is just her second year providing live-saving, infant swim-skills lessons to area children after the regular, summer, swim-team season is over.

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"I'm teaching these kids, at a very young age, survival skills should they ever fall into a pool or body of water," Harrison said. "Every year we hear of tragic drownings of young children. They almost always drown because they fall in and don't know what to do. Often they are just inches from the side of the pool. We can prevent that from happening by teaching them how to float, how to cry for help and how to save themselves. It's amazing how quickly they learn."

Pratt parent Maura Eddy said her son Sage, 20 months old, just started swimming lessons with Tonja last week.

"He screams through most of the lesson, and as a parent it is hard to hear," she said. "But this is so incredibly important for him to know. I was a lifeguard growing up and had to save numerous children. I knew I wanted my son to be as safe as possible when being around water. Sadly, so many kids die every year from water related deaths, many in swimming pools. These lessons teach him valuable life-saving skills in case he ever accidentally falls in."

Harrison, who is certified through Swim America to give life-saving lessons to young children, said she teaches children to first get to their back and float when they go into the water.

"When they have got that ability to flip over and float, then I teach them to scream for help," she said. "That is what a lot of people are hearing. If we don't teach them to yell, they will just quietly drown. We can change that."

Harrison doesn't end her lessons with simply teaching kids to float and yell for help, she goes then next step and teaches them, that if no one comes to help, they have to save themselves by dog paddling to the side and grabbing the edge.

"These are learned skills," she said. "These are things we need to teach them to save their lives. It really is sink or swim."

Harrison said she runs her swimming lessons like a drill sergeant and the whining and crying doesn't bother her.

"My swim team kids know I don't allow bobbing or whining or messing around," she said. "I teach the right way. I teach discipline. Parents love it and kids catch on real quick this is how it's going to be."

Harrison's success as a swim-team coach is apparent in the large summer swim club she runs every May and June, often with more than 50 area participants from Pratt. Her survival-skills lessons for babies are booked full most weeks as well.

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"I am so grateful our community has Tonya to teach these lessons," Eddy said. "She has a Facebook page and it’s easy to sign up through a link she provides there."

Eddy said that just knowing her son is able to save himself in an emergency is a great comfort to her as a parent.

"I never intend to have him around water where I’m not watching and available to save him but accidents happen," she said. "Now if he ever were to fall in he knows what to do. At only 20 months old he can flip himself over in the water, float, and grab the wall which provides extra time for someone to be able to get to him. That is invaluable."

Harrison said she charges $20-$30 per 30-minute lesson, the price fluctuating with the stage of learning.

"I have always loved swimming," Harrison said. "I grew up pretty much in a swimming pool in College Hill in Wichita. I was swimming with my older siblings on their swim-team when I was only 3-years-old. It is just something that has always been a big part of my life."

Harrison also owns and operates Balloons and More, a specialty gift store in Pratt. If given the choice, she said she would sell the store and build her own indoor pool and give swimming lessons all day, every day.

"I just love working with the kids," she said. "It is so much fun to see them gain confidence in themselves. It carries over into all other areas of life, that confidence."

Harrison said that the sport of swimming is the best thing for all athletes to use to stay in shape during the summer, as it not only builds strength, endurance and flexibility but it is also safe, with rare chance of injury.

"Swimming is the best way to learn discipline and to help kids grow into healthy athletes all the way around," she said. "Teaching them to save themselves from the start just makes a lot of sense."

It's not easy, but kids like Sage Eddy, 20 months, learn quickly how to get their backs and float after several lessons with Tonja Harrison in Pratt.