“I only looked away for a second.” These are words nobody wants to say, but unfortunately the sentiment is all too common when a child drowns.
“Toddlers can drown in under a minute,” said Liz Huber, who founded the nonprofit CAST Water Safety Foundation and has opened an indoor, inground pool at 7628 Madison St.
Drowning is the number one cause of accidental death for children under the age of five, and second leading cause of death for kids aged 1 to 14. And even children who survive near-drowning may suffer severe consequences, like brain damage.
Huber’s nonprofit focuses on water safety education using the Infant Swimming Resource (ISR) method, which teaches infants and young children the skills to float, swim and self-rescue.
“Water is the most dangerous surface in life for children that age,” Huber said. “Before water games and singing, kids must know how to survive.”
Huber said that all swimming programs have the right intention: to teach kids to swim and keep them safe. But too much focus on games and not enough on the actual mechanics doesn’t provide kids with the skills they need, skills they’re capable of mastering at a much younger age.
With traditional lessons, the swimming component “clicks” around the age of five, Huber said. “But one-year-olds are capable of swimming.”
CAST begins lessons for children as young as six months old. From that age until a child is a strong walker, lessons focus on teaching the babies how to roll onto their back from a face down or vertical position in the water.
Once children are walking well up until the age of six, they learn how to swim face down to safety, flipping onto their back when needed to float.
Lessons are 10 minutes long, five days a week, for a period of six weeks.
Although the program is designed for children up to the age of six, Huber said they make exceptions for older kids too.
“Not One More Child Drowns” is the mission of ISR, the method used at CAST. ISR was founded in 1966 and has worked for decades to provide survival and swimming lessons for infants and young children. A part of ISR’s philosophy is that drowning prevention involves many layers, including fences, pool alarms, and supervision.
But at the very heart of drowning prevention, says ISR, is the child. No prevention plan is perfect. Children can climb fences. Alarms might malfunction. A supervisor might take a phone call or step away. And that leaves the child unprotected, unless she has the necessary skills to save herself in the water.
“ISR’s core conviction is that the child is the most important part of a drowning prevention strategy,” reads the ISR website. “Children are curious, capable, and have an uncanny ability to overcome obstacles like pool fences; at ISR we take that ability and teach them skills to potentially save themselves if they find themselves in the water alone.”
CAST on Madison Street is an open and airy space, with an inground pool for lessons. Surrounding it, outside glass walls, are tables and chairs. Instructors in the water wear masks during the one-on-one 10-minute lessons. A two-year old flipped from her stomach to her back and calmly floated. She could get herself to the side of the pool. She could wait for help.
Huber said her own family spends a lot of time around water and on boats, and as soon as she learned about the ISR swimming program, she knew it’s what she wanted for her own children, who were two-and-a-half years old and 10 months old at the time. She found a program in Oakbrook, unsure at first if the daily trek would be worth it. The fact that the lessons were only 10 minutes long made her doubt how much her children would actually learn.
But in five weeks, they were both completely independent in water.
Huber was teaching at Longfellow School in Oak Park at the time, and she has a background in business. She decided to switch course, to combine her skills by opening a business that focused on kids. But finding pool space was difficult; she shared lanes at different pools, teaching ISR skills, but without enough flexibility, she decided to open her own pool. She formed the nonprofit CAST and bought the building at 7630 Madison St.
All the instructors at CAST are ISR trained and certified, and supported by a full-time team of nurses, who work with families of kids with any special needs to make their pool experience as safe as possible. If a child has asthma, for example, the team will determine how to make sure that child is safe during lessons. Huber said they’ve worked with kids with limb differences and a boy with no hands or feet.
“We have a high success rate with children with autism,” said Huber, and the program can teach hearing and visually impaired children water safety skills too.
“There’s a lot of nonverbal communication,” said Huber, since they begin working with babies as young as six months old.
Another focus of the program is on the parents. Huber said many of the children they teach have parents who can’t swim. With those students, they focus on skill building, like with all kids. But they work with the parents too, teaching them not to transfer their own anxiety to their kids.
And safety surrounding water is discussed as well. Her own children, now four and almost six, won’t get in the water if she or another designated adult aren’t around. It has to be something they just understand not to do, Huber said. A five-year-old wouldn’t get into a car and start to drive it. The same rules should apply to water.
Despite drowning being the number one cause of accidental death for young children, the statistics haven’t changed, said Huber. That means the problem exists but isn’t being properly or universally addressed.
“There’s a way to protect your kids from the most dangerous thing in their life,” said Huber. “And the slow, sing-songy route is not helpful.”
New classes at CAST start Oct. 5. Visit castwatersafety.org for more information.