In many states, drowning is the leading cause of death in children under 5 years old. However, there is hope in lowering the number of childhood drowning accidents throughout the country, thanks to programs such as Baby Otter Swim School, which combines a vast knowledge of water safety and swimming techniques with love and tenderness.

“Don’t let your child become a statistic,” says Marlene Bloom, co-founder of Baby Otter Swim School of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Imagine the horror of seeing your 17-month-old child at the bottom of a pool, unable to swim to the top. Imagine the devastation, even guilt, you might feel after such an accident. Mindy York, co-founder with Bloom, identifies. “She was at the bottom of the pool just looking up at me,” says York, remembering a dreadful day involving her daughter that occurred over 20 years ago.

Bloom created the Turn, Kick, Reach (TKR) swimming technique more than 30 years ago when her fearless 18-month-old daughter used to repeatedly dart for any swimming pool. Bloom used her background in physical education and her experience as a Mom to invent this now-successful five-day water survival program suitable for children as young as 9 months old, depending on their crawling abilities. “They must crawl on all fours due to muscle development,” says Bloom.

York says that although babies may not communicate completely, they are capable of comprehending enough to learn to swim. “They understand more than what we give them credit for understanding,” she says.

For months, Bloom had been telling York to sign up her daughter for TKR lessons. Then that life-altering day arrived. York was at the community pool with her two children, tending to her son while her daughter sat on a chair. Suddenly, York’s little girl had disappeared. York and her son looked around, and her son yelled, “Mommy, there she is!” And there the baby was, helpless at the bottom of the pool.

York knew CPR and was able to revive her daughter, but she would procrastinate no longer. She registered her daughter for the swimming class immediately following the incident. “After that, I knew there was a mission in life I needed to do,” says York.

“I heard about the Baby Otter program through a friend,” says Alison Wealcatch of Plantation, Florida, whose son is a graduate of the program. “[My friend’s] daughter was 18 months old and came over to our pool after only three days in the program. Once I saw her swimming so comfortably, I knew I had to enroll Logan. Seeing Logan swimming on his own for the first time at only 12 months old was unbelievable. Within a matter of days, he learned to hold his breath underwater, turn to the side of the pool, kick his little feet as fast as he could and hold himself up on the side of the pool.”

Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Andre Dawson have also taken advantage of this reputable program. Paltrow has said of her experience with Baby Otter Swim School, “The best part is, I know that if [daughter Apple] ever fell into a pool, she would know exactly how to save her life.”

The buzz has also hit New York. And local parents such as Perah Dwek are flocking to Florida to see TKR first-hand. Dwek heard about Baby Otter through friends in Miami. Her children were ages 1½ and 3½ when they took the class, and Dwek says they were swimming before the fifth day. “My son was petrified of swimming, but they changed him,” says Dwek. “They teach with a lot of care and a lot of patience. It was very loving, but very persistent. I make special trips to Florida just to reinforce and get my kids to the next level.”

When asked what it is about the program that has non-residents traveling to Florida, York says: “It’s five days… the technique, the loving approach. Pediatricians call it a ‘no nonsense, loving program.’”

Yet, their task at hand is not just to provide swimming lessons. It is to spread the word, nationally, on water safety. “Drowning is not seasonal,” says York. “It’s an epidemic that this country has not yet embraced.”

Baby Otter Swim School is active in the Children’s Safety Network of South Florida and a member of the National Swim School Association. It holds water safety seminars on a regular basis, reaching out to all walks of life— children, parents, educators and administrators. It has been telecast on local news stations and has even produced DVDs on water safety awareness. You Otter Be Safe Around the Water is a fun and educational video featuring Baby Otter as he teaches swimming safety rules, and Safety: A Pool Owner’s Visual Guide teaches parents the “layers of protection” for children in and around the pool.

“I don’t play; I get very matter-of-fact,” says York. “I ask them, ‘Would you know what to do if your child fell in a body of water?’ If they have to think about it, I say, ‘Well there’s your answer.’ This is a no-brainer. I have very little patience for parents who don’t take this as seriously as they should.”

And there’s no stopping these two program leaders, until they can prevent more drowning accidents. Their future plans include franchising in other parts of the country, and they hope to one day establish Baby Otter Swim School as a national drowning prevention trademark. Baby Otter’s mission is “to be to drowning prevention what Smokey the Bear is to fire prevention.”

For more information about Baby Otter Swim School, call (888)SWIM-KID, or visit them online at www.babyotterswimschool.com.

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