Ambassadors of Safety

Local lifeguards take skills and goodwill to India

A warm wind whips across the Clements Pool, as lifeguards Ben Schaub and Bree Johnston squint into the piercing fall sun. Small ripples dimple the pool's surface, and kids splash around while parents watch intently from the deck.

As swimming holes go, this immaculate city oasis on the eastside ranks among the best. So does its staff, all well-trained in the art of saving lives. But now, along with other guards throughout Tucson, Schaub and Johnston will spearhead a trip to India, where water safety remains decidedly Third World.

Financed by its own fundraisers and car washes, the 15-member Swim India team will fan across that country's southern reaches, teaching everything from basic safety-and-rescue techniques to CPR in orphanages and schools. But this journey, the second for the locally based group, involves more than simply saving lives. It's also about endowing those volunteers with a sense of global responsibility--and extending a bit of the American goodwill that's run rather thin in recent years.

Schaub got the idea for Swim India in 2004, after finishing a volunteer-teaching stint in Nepal. "I really learned a lot about another culture," he says, "and how different things were once you escaped the American bubble." He figured that might be a good perspective to spread around. "I thought it was important for all college-age kids to experience another culture and escape the American lifestyle and really see how the majority of the world lives."

Of course, his project also aimed to help the rest of the world--or at least a small, exotic slice of it--learn how to prevent drowning deaths. "I had been a lifeguard with the city of Tucson for about 10 years," he says. "And I thought, 'Why not create some kind of lifeguard opportunities overseas--something different than just teaching English in schools?' I thought it would be a great way not just to learn something, but to potentially save lives."

So he put the word out among city lifeguards, and Swim India prepared for its first trip. On advice from India's Rashtriya Life Saving Society--which pointed out the dire shortage of certified lifeguards on that country's western beaches--Schaub's crew spent three weeks in the state of Goa. "We trained and certified 22 lifeguards in life-guarding and CPR," he says, "so they could go back and get jobs in their communities, and save lives on the beach."

The need for that training couldn't be more critical. According to the World Health Organization, each year, more than 400,000 people die by drowning, making it second only to traffic accidents as a leading cause of death. India and China account for nearly half of those deaths; India alone sees more than 80,000 drowning incidents annually, many of them during the monsoon season.

Although there are lifeguards in India, "none of them go through training," Schaub says, "so we had to start from scratch. They'll just pull a fisherman off the dock, and as long as he can swim, they put him at the beach (as a lifeguard) for appearance's sake. Then they can advertise that they have lifeguard-patrolled beaches. But there were hundreds of drowning deaths every year just in the Goa area."

For the next three-week trip, in January, Swim India will shift from training lifeguards to working in schools and orphanages. He says the instruction is modeled after a study conducted in Bangladesh by Johns Hopkins University.

"It's children who are most in danger of drowning, so we've partnered with schools and orphanages in five different cities in southern India. We're planning to teach about 3,500 kids a water-safety education program."

Children most often drown in ditches and basins flooded by monsoon rains, he says. "Little kids aren't paying attention, and they fall in, and the parents don't find them until later." Unsafe ferries are another common cause of drowning deaths, particularly during crowded religious pilgrimages. "Often, you'll hear that the ferry operators overstuff these boats, and the result is that they capsize. People will drown just 100 yards offshore."

To hike the odds of survival, Swim India will teach the children rescue techniques and CPR. "Then if they see someone drowning offshore or off the side of a boat, they can do some form of reach-and-assist or a throwing-assist--something to help people who are in danger," Schaub says. "We're also going to teach them how to rescue themselves if they are in a current or fall off a boat."

Johnston is a UA junior and Swim India's president; rounding out the board of directors, along with Schaub, are Matthew George and Lindsey Brown. Although a seasoned traveler, Johnston was still struck by India's sheer intensity. "It was really eye-opening to see what poor really was, and to realize the things I took for granted, like going to the beach," she says. "These people would travel for hours to get there--and then have a terrible tragedy happen to them. When we were there this year, a person died just a couple of miles down the beach, because there was no lifeguard.

"Sure, there are larger problems going on everywhere," she says, "but this is where we can fill a need. There is no national organization in India that really focuses on water-safety education. And considering that three-fourths of the country is surrounded by ocean, and there are numerous lakes and rivers, and they have such terrible monsoons--it's really a problem that needs to be addressed."

Meanwhile, the sharing goes both ways. "I found it very heart-warming," she says. "You wouldn't believe how happy people are to see you. You'll be walking down the street, and someone will say, 'Oh, are you American? I'd love to talk to you, or have you come look around my university.' It's really welcoming--more so than I ever really expected."

Schaub nods. "There are so many stereotypes that Americans have of Asia," he says. "But when you go there and see how people really are, it breaks those things down, and helps you become a lot more well-rounded.

"It's important for people to see another culture, another country. For a lot of our people going this year, this will be their first time out of the United States."

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