By Nona Tepper
Joshua Farley felt inspired to become a lifeguard because of the easy-going characters on "SpongeBob SquarePants," a favorite TV show of his. But a year after becoming certified through Proviso East High School's program and spending a summer policing the pool at West Cook YMCA in Oak Park, Farley, 17, has found that lifeguarding isn't as chill as he expected.
"I thought it would be fun, just sitting in the sun, chilling. I would imagine in the movies how they just sit down with their sunglasses on and just play that song, 'In the summertime, in the summertime,'" Farley said. "But sometimes it can be really stressful."
Farley is part of the first class of lifeguards to graduate from the Proviso East High School lifeguard training program, in partnership with the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park, which provides training and job opportunities.
All students who graduate from the program -- and there have been 21 so far -- receive jobs at the West Cook YMCA, Fred Hampton Aquatic Center in Maywood and other facilities. This coming school year, Tracy McCormick, department chair of physical education, said she expects about 30 students to apply for certification.
"Statistically African-American and Hispanic students cannot swim," McCormick said. "But it's a really important skill to have. It's a safety concern."
Students spend one hour for 10 weeks training daily at the Proviso East pool, diving into 10 feet of water to retrieve bricks, swimming laps, learning CPR and much more. In addition to toning up his swimming skills, Farley learned that dunking people and doing backflips -- while fun -- is not safe.
But he said he learned about the real dangers of the water while lifeguarding at the Proviso East pool. Early in his lifeguard career, Farley remembers a high school freshman treading in the deep end of the pool, when suddenly he started to swallow water. Farley didn't think twice. He said he immediately jumped in and rescued the boy.
"He turned out to be on the same volleyball team as me," Farley added.
While he was training, Kendall Friend said he always thought he'd feel nervous about making his first save. But when he saw an older friend from school struggling in the Triton College pool, he immediately jumped in.
"It wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be," said Friend, 17.
When he was younger, Friend said he taught himself to swim, and has since loved swimming and looked up to lifeguards. When he heard about the opportunity to become a lifeguard at school, he jumped at the chance, thinking it would be a big achievement.
Now that Friend is certified, he's said he's taught his little cousins, younger sister and others to swim.
"They see me as a leader [and] they help me build more confidence by teaching them how to swim," he said.
Like Friend, Jennifer Medina said she has taught her younger sisters to swim after receiving lifeguard certification.
Growing up, she said her dad almost drowned when he was swimming. After that, Medina said her mom was always very anxious about allowing her children to swim in the deep end of the pool. But Medina always loved swimming.
She said she became a lifeguard to protect her family and help her mom relax about letting her and her sisters swim in deep water. Now she's gearing up for her first summer guarding the pool at the West Cook YMCA. She said she's excited, but nervous about what the warm weather will bring.
"When we're young we believe that we have the whole world in our palm, and sometimes it's that way," said Medina, 16. "But we're still teenagers, we're still adolescents, when we're inexperienced about life, we still don't know the consequences. The first thing that we believe is that the water's against us, but we need to be the water."