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Club unites around water safety


On one of her frequent visits to train swim teachers in Thailand, Eve Fraser was demonstrating the proper technique for helping people overcome a fear of water. Modeling with one of the trainees, Fraser let go and the young woman swam to the side of the pool. Afterward, the woman came up to Fraser and the other instructors with tears in her eyes. Ten years earlier, she had nearly died of drowning and had been revived by CPR. This was the first time she had swam.

“It was a teary moment for all of us,” Fraser says of the experience earlier this year in the city of Phuket in Thailand’s coastal south. “She passed the course, became a swim teacher, and is now a nurse teaching swimming on the side for extra income.”

The curriculum Fraser was using that day, Rhythm of the Water, was developed by the Rotary Club of Global Water Safety & Drowning Prevention, which Fraser helped charter in 2022 from her home near Brisbane, Australia. The cause-based club has brought together water safety professionals in 17 countries and most continents to expand access to quality swimming lessons.

Around the world, common barriers to lessons include costs, low availability of convenient classes, and a lack of awareness among parents. In the U.S., marginalized communities, in particular, have more limited access and experience disproportionately higher drowning rates.

Members of the Rotary Club of Global Water Safety & Drowning Prevention, including (from left) Alina Graham, Eve Fraser, and Brendon Ward

Mark Lehn

Fraser, the club's president and a Swim Australia-accredited teacher, began thinking more intently about drowning prevention after the dramatic 2018 rescue of a youth soccer team from a flooded cave in remote Thailand. She began volunteering through the Rotary Club of Chiang Mai International in northern Thailand to train swim teachers for the club's aquatic program, which has taught thousands of children to swim.

After the University of Southern Queensland named her alum of the year in 2020 for her efforts, she found herself on social media with other industry leaders, developing a vision for how to reach even more children.

"I had a pretty good model in my head," says Fraser, who worked for the United Nations as a trauma counselor with the International Organization for Migration before joining Rotary. "At the UN, we could get displaced people anywhere in the world because we had people on the ground. I needed a model like that for swimming because the places we needed to go are remote and in all parts of the world. Sending people from big cities is not sustainable."

Rotary provided that reach. Encouraged by a friend, she joined the Rotary Club of Brisbane International in January 2021. But after leading a water-safety project in Uganda later that year, she yearned for a club focused exclusively on the cause. She sent invitations through social media to industry connections. The caused-based club, which meets online twice a month, was chartered on 25 July 2022, the UN's World Drowning Prevention Day.

"I had this vision to train all these teachers up in all these communities around the world. But I needed people on the ground to run the programs," explains Fraser. "It doesn't matter where you go in Rotary; someone is there who can help us deliver."

The club launched the Swimming Gift initiative that invites Rotary clubs to donate US$650, roughly the cost of teaching one class of 30 children. Its 2nd Dip program collects used equipment for students in need. The Triple T program sends teams of trainers to qualify swim teachers for international certification.

A global challenge

In 2021, the United Nations passed a resolution recognizing 25 July as World Drowning Prevention Day and calling on member states to develop national prevention plans with measurable targets. According to the World Health Organization, drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury deaths worldwide. An estimated 236,000 people die yearly from drowning, with low- and middle-income countries accounting for over 90 percent of those deaths. Drowning is among the 10 leading causes of death globally for 5- to 14-year-olds. WHO considers drowning preventable and recommends interventions including teaching school-age children basic water safety and safe rescue skills; training bystanders in rescue and resuscitation; providing safe places away from water for preschool-age children; installing barriers to control access to water; enforcing boating, shipping, and ferry regulations; and improving flood risk management locally and nationally.

The club's members, who include leaders of aquatic safety organizations, are exploring how to use their positions to press governments to fund swimming instruction for all children and make it a priority. "We have an opportunity to help countries set up organizations and establish standards," says club member Leslie Donavan, CEO of the U.S.-based Starfish Aquatics Institute. "I'm really excited because I think the club gives us the entrée to be able to do that on a global scale, which is what Rotary is all about."

Donavan described a trip she took with Starfish Aquatics to Uganda where she visited a village well. "It went down forever. People were drowning all the time," she recalls. "They said the way you knew if a child had drowned is if they didn't come home for dinner."

Moses Kalanzi, executive director of Swim Safe Uganda, joined the club because of his prior work with Fraser on the Brisbane International club's project in Uganda. As a child, he was crossing a bridge with schoolmates when he fell into the river and was swept away. A tree stopped him, and a bystander pulled him ashore unconscious.

"Luckily, I regained consciousness. Since that time, I started taking water seriously," Kalanzi says. "In university, I saw the pool and knew I needed to learn how to swim so that I could help other people not drown."

Michelle Michael, of Wodonga, Australia, is exploring initiatives for the club to pursue in the Philippines. She lost three nieces to drowning there in 2017 when the girls were hauling in fishing nets. The youngest slipped into the river, and the other two jumped in to help. The three girls had not had swimming lessons. "It was after this that I thought, 'I have to do something. I have to be able to help these beautiful children,'" says Michael.

That sense of a shared mission and focus, common with cause-based clubs, "brings a whole new level of energy to Rotary International," says John Schorr, a charter member of the Rotary Club of Chiang Mai International.

The format is not without its challenges. Members strung across continents cannot readily gather in person for social events or fundraisers. But Fraser is working hard to make sure members learn Rotary basics, so they get plugged into the organization as a whole. "All of our projects we do with other Rotary clubs," she says, "so our members get that connection with other members."

This story originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

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