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UMass Chan’s Water Safe Worcester program promotes swimming safety for city’s teenagers

Medical and PhD students, residents, postdocs and faculty teaching water safety to 100 teens

Teenagers in Worcester are hitting the swim lanes at the YMCA Central Community Branch this summer with free water safety lessons provided by UMass Chan Medical School students and faculty.

The Water Safe Worcester program is underway on Wednesday nights through August. The program is free and open to all teenagers in the Worcester area.

The purpose of the program is to promote water safety, highlight the importance of recognizing signs of danger while they’re swimming in the city’s lakes and ponds, and prevent drowning deaths among teenagers. According to the CDC, for children ages five to 14, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death after motor vehicle crashes and Black children ages 10 to 14 drown at rates 7.6 times higher than white children in swimming pools. 

“Every kid needs this sort of thing. It's a great combination of water safety and water skills. It’s especially important with this age group because even though they might be able to swim, this program stresses the importance of understanding their surroundings and environment, how to be safe in the water, and how to take care of themselves and each other,” said Pam Suprenant, vice president of youth development and community services for the YMCA of Central Massachusetts.

Around 100 teenagers are expected to participate in the program. The volunteer instructors rotate small groups of teens over the course of the weekly two-hour lessons.

“We’ve been able to adapt the program to the skill levels of each swimmer and find different ways to meet kids where they're at and really improve their confidence and strength in the water,” said Katharine Playter, a rising second-year medical student and one of the co-leaders of the Water Safe Worcester program.

There are more than a dozen volunteers participating in the program, including UMass Chan medical students, PhD candidates, research associates, residents and faculty. It is led by medical students Kendall Lavin-Parsons, Erin Hurley and Katharine Playter, under the oversight of Kaitlyn Wong, MD, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of surgery and pediatrics, and Alycia Valente, MD, MBE, assistant professor of emergency medicine.

“Everyone knows the risk for little kids because they haven't yet learned how to swim. However, adolescents also have a fairly high risk of drowning too, particularly the inner-city population as they have fewer opportunities to get in a pool to swim,” Dr. Wong said. “Exposing them to this program and giving them opportunities for education and swim lessons can hopefully educate them on things to be aware of not only in the pool, but in natural bodies of water and give them some foundation to help them along with swimming and decrease their anxiety around the water.”

Under the guidance of Drs. Wong and Valente and third-year medical student Kurren Parida, the Water Safe Worcester program launched during the summer of 2021, when it was developed and students were trained.

Thanks to the Manny 267 Foundation, a charitable organization started in 2021 in memory of Worcester Police Officer Enmanuel “Manny” Familia who died in Green Hill Pond attempting to save a drowning teenager, the Water Safe Worcester program was connected with Suprenant and her team at the YMCA Central Branch. The program is now a smaller part of the YouthConnect program, a summer and after-school program with nearly 600 kids enrolled between several locations, including the YMCA, Friendly House, YWCA, Boys & Girls Club and Worcester Youth Center.

Lavin Parsons oversees the public safety messaging. The Manny 267 Foundation has provided funding for water safety signage to place around the city’s bodies of water. The signs will have QR codes to access the safety tips and warnings in other languages.

The UMass Chan volunteers also organized hands-only CPR classes that run on Tuesday evenings throughout the summer at the YMCA and the other YouthConnect locations across the city. The classes launched on July 18 and are taught by Hurley, a former lifeguard. Like the water safety lessons, the program is free for YouthConnect kids.

“Worcester is a welcome and open community, and we are going to keep having folks move here from all over, so we need to make sure the messaging around our ponds and lakes speaks to everyone about the possible dangers around our recreation sites,” Dr. Valente said.

The program will run year-round.

“The next group of medical student leaders will start in August, and we'll have them teaching the lessons and learning the program as soon as they can start,” Hurley said.

Rising second-year medical students Michael Bolstad, Abigail Horgan, Lindsay Issokson, Noel Rymbai, Hari Sharma and Suhas Suddala; PhD candidate Gretchen Weaver; and Mathias Hammer, PhD, a research associate in the lab of David Grunwald, PhD, associate professor of RNA therapeutics, and Zachary Ballinger, MD, general surgery resident physician, round out the group of UMass Chan volunteer instructors.

“A lot of medical schools have health clinics and vaccination clinics to provide an opportunity for students to exercise their learning in the medical field as they're beginning medical school. I feel this is just as important because this is an opportunity that is very unique,” Wong said. “The fact that this is all UMass Chan driven really gives these volunteers the opportunity to flex the public health muscles and potentially lead to reduce future injuries.”

The Water Safe Worcester program runs Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. through August. Any teen between the ages of 13 and 19 interested in participating can sign up for YouthConnect for free and show up to attend the program at the YMCA Central Branch at 766 Main St. in Worcester.