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Next Wave : Junior Lifeguard Program Is Helping Train a New Generation in Respect for the Ocean

July 13, 1989|LINDA MEARS

"Down on your stomachs!

"Roll!"

The orders are barked, military style. But there's nothing military about the response.

"Awww, we just did this," pipe some 30 young voices.

"Well, we're going to do it again. Move!"

And with that, instructor John Hunter leads a red-suited attack on the surf at Ventura State Beach, where the Channel Coast Junior Lifeguard program is beginning its 19th summer.

Sponsored by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Junior Lifeguard program is open to 9- to 15-year-olds and is offered during two four-week sessions, July 5-29 and Aug. 1-26.

The program is designed to teach beach and ocean safety and ecology, lifeguard techniques, first aid and CPR. It serves as a recruiting tool--especially for affirmative action programs aimed at increasing the number of minorities who are certified lifeguards--and keeps children busy in the summer while teaching them to protect themselves in the ocean.

This year's enrollment was the highest ever, with 125 signed up for the first session.

As slim at 31 as most of her students, Junior Lifeguard director Sandy Dungan can be picked out of the crowd only by her signature wide-brimmed straw hat. "I've been doing this for 12 years," she says, "and I'm always amazed when the first day goes smoothly.

"We divide up into three groups and rotate instructors every 30 minutes," Dungan explains, checking her watch. Hunter's class on water orientation--run in; don't let the waves knock you down--is now in the water, although some of the recruits exhibit a little reluctance because the water is cold.

Meantime, instructor Jon Silver is introducing a session on beach manners. "What does the term 'beach manners' mean to you?" he asks. Several hands shoot up. "Obey the rules." "Pick up trash." "Set a good example for your friends and parents."

Silver applauds and adds: "Also, if you see seagulls eating somebody's lunch, don't just laugh. Rescue the lunch. It could be your lunch!"

About 30 feet away, instructor Brian Flick is discussing ocean and beach safety with another group. After reviewing some of the common-sense rules (swim with a buddy; know which way the current is going), he entreats his students to think of other, less obvious beach hazards.

"People from Idaho!" comes the answer, drawing a laugh at the expense of tourists in general.

County officials hope that many of these small, shivering, sand-covered kids will become real lifeguards someday.

"We employ about 40 people during the summer season to be able to staff 23 guards a day. The turnover rate is 15% to 25% each year, so we are constantly recruiting," says District Lifeguard Supervisor Steve White.

Some recruiting efforts have been aimed at high schools and colleges with high minority enrollment. Another has been to maintain an open line to the city of Ventura's Summer Youth Employment Training Program. Through this program, teen-agers do light housekeeping work at the Channel Coast Lifeguard headquarters in exchange for tuition-free enrollment in the Junior Lifeguard Program.

White expects this summer-job program, more than any other single source, to keep Ventura County beaches supplied with qualified lifeguards in years to come. An increasing number of recruits are from groups not traditionally represented, such as Asians, Hispanics and blacks.

"While most of our new recruits come to the program by word of mouth, this year we made a concentrated effort to involve those kids who might have felt they couldn't afford the program," Dungan said.

"While the $160 tuition fee breaks down to little more than $2 an hour for four hours a day of supervised instruction, we still don't like to turn anyone away for lack of money," Dungan says. Toward that end, she sent letters to organizations and businesses this year seeking scholarship funds for the program. She got only one contribution, of $50.

Although Dungan will sometimes lower tuition fees for those who need a financial break, she gives no quarter when it comes to minimum swimming requirements. Potential junior guards must be able to swim 100 yards on the surface, 10 yards underwater, and tread water for five minutes.

Testing is done in a pool instead of the ocean because, Dungan explains, "we don't want to scare off an otherwise competent swimmer just because the ocean is too cold. Initially, we just want confident swimmers. We will turn them into ocean swimmers."

According to one of its supporters, the Junior Lifeguard Program teaches more than just ocean swimming.

"Respect," says Erica Huddy. "They are always teaching respect for the ocean." When she and her husband, John, moved from the East Coast to California in 1987, it quickly became evident that their 12-year-old son, John, had an affinity for the beach.

"He always wanted to be at the beach with his friends, and I was constantly worried about safety," said Mrs. Huddy. "I was caught in a rip-current many years ago in Florida, and I've never forgotten it."

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