PARKERSBURG - Count Parkersburg resident Rick Stull among the 54 percent of Americans a recent American Red Cross survey found either can't swim or don't have all of the basic swimming skills that could keep them from drowning.
"I can't swim at all," said Stull, 30.
He said his mother didn't know how to swim and never put him in swim classes when he was younger. Stull said he'd still like to learn and for his 6-year-old son, Hayden, to learn as well.
Vienna resident Emmenuel Tewodros, 7, practices the backstroke Wednesday in the Parkersburg YMCA pool. Tewodros began taking swimming classes when he was 3 and is now a member of the Parkersburg Sharks swim team. (Photo by Evan Bevins)
"You never know when you'll need to (swim)," he said. "And it's also just a good way to stay fit and healthy."
In recognition of its 100 years of providing swimming safety education, the Red Cross recently announced it was launching a campaign to teach 50,000 people in 50 selected cities to swim in an effort to reduce the drowning rate in those cities by 50 percent over the next five years.
It's a subject that hits close to home following the May 18 death of a Charleston teenager who drowned in a lake at the Parchment Valley West Virginia Baptist Conference Center in Jackson County. Sheriff Tony Boggs said the 15-year-old Stonewall Jackson Middle School student apparently did not know how to swim.
According to a release from the Red Cross, an average of 10 people die every day in the United States from unintentional drowning, 20 percent of them age 14 or younger. Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children and ranks sixth among people of all ages.
The Red Cross-commissioned survey found that 80 percent of Americans said they could swim, but just 56 percent of those individuals could perform the five water safety skills that constitute "water competency." To be considered water competent, a person must be able to: "step or jump into the water over your head, return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute, turn around in a full circle and find an exit, swim 25 yards to the exit and exit from the water," the release says.
While Parkersburg is not among the cities targeted in the Red Cross campaign, the area has long had a volunteer-driven initiative aimed at making sure children and adults know how to swim, said Sharon Kesselring, financial development director for the Mid-Ohio Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross. The Learn-to-Swim classes are offered to children and adults free of charge for two weeks in the summer.
"We've been doing this more than 40 years," Kesselring said.
This year's classes will be held July 7-18 at the Southwood Park Pool. Classes for children who have completed kindergarten and up are offered in the morning, while adult and older youth classes take place in the evening. The programs are open to anyone, regardless of where they live.
Youth signups are from 9 to 11 a.m. on June 7, at the Southwood pool. Families who can't make that can place their child on a waiting list by calling 304-488-5279 after 9 a.m. on June 9.
Adults don't have to register; they can simply show up at the pool for the first class at 7 p.m. on July 7.
Parkersburg resident Kathy Silket took the Red Cross classes as a refresher, as did her children, now ages 21 and 15.
"I learned to swim as a child, but not by training," Silket said, noting a friend's father taught her.
Silket said she's confident she can perform the five water competency skills.
Kesselring said the children's classes generally draw about 200 and they could accommodate as many as 300. The sessions for adults never draw more than 25 and usually less than that.
"Not as many as we'd like," Kesselring said.
"I think that once we get of an age where we feel we can control our lives, we don't feel we need to how to swim because we just stay out of water," she said. "(But) you never know when you may be called upon to help somebody who's in distress in water. Or you could find yourself in water."
That's why Parkersburg resident Jessica Sparks wants her 4-year-old son Colten Wilson to learn to swim - even though she's had a string of bad luck in the water. As a child she was accidentally held under water when another girl jumped on her back; in 2011, she broke multiple vertebrae in her neck in a freak accident while in a pool; and in 2013, she got pulled under by a current at Virginia Beach and had to be rescued.
"I just have a fear of water, I think," Sparks said. "I could probably doggy paddle for a while, but that's about it.
"It's definitely important for him (Colten) to learn how to swim because I don't want him to be afraid of water at all," she said.
Ben Shuman, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Parkersburg, said research has shown that from West Virginia to Maine, the Mountain State has the highest incidence of drowning among youth ages 5 to 19. It's about evenly split between natural bodies of water and man-made structures like pools.
The club emphasizes learning to swim for kids at its pool. There is no charge for the classes, which are included in the $12-a-year membership fee.
"Almost every kid wants to swim at some point or wants to be in the water," Shuman said. "The sooner we can do that, the better off we are."
Some people learned to swim at a young age and maintain those skills today.
"I've been swimming since I was a little kid," said 59-year-old Parkersburg resident Mark Fox. "I enjoyed it."
The YMCA of Parkersburg offers swim classes for kids and adults year-round.
"We run them from 6 months to adults," said Ronnie Lott, senior program director. "There's more people out there than you think that don't know how to swim."
Cost for the classes, which usually run seven weeks, is $25 for members and $45 for non-members. The Y also offers an annual Splash Camp - this year's is June 9-12 - where 100 children from kindergarten to fifth grade can receive free beginning swim lessons and an introduction to water safety.
Interested parents can contact the Y at 304-485-5585 for more information.