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

"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."

Young John attended both sessions last summer, and Mrs. Huddy says she feels comfortable letting him go to the beach now. "His endurance at the end of the summer was phenomenal. He's doing the program this year because he wants to."

That's an allusion to the fact that more often than not, it is the parents who "encourage"--some of the children would say order--them to try out for the program. But it is the swimmers themselves who maintain a 25% rate of repeat attendance.

Partially billed as a "sun, sand, surf, games and windsurfing" time at the beach, the program is also a hard-core, competitive learning process that results in intermittent groaning, sore muscles and shivering. But some parents say their children's initial complaints about heartless instructors eventually give way to good-natured grousing.

Jim Taft says he and his wife had to push daughter Jamie, 13, to try out for the program last year.

"We didn't want her just hanging around the house," he said. "Then she'd come home saying, 'Boy, it was hard today. . . . You wouldn't believe what we had to do.' But by the end of the session she was beginning to like the tan and the hair bleached from the sun and the way she felt. She felt good about her improved endurance and swimming ability too."

That she didn't need pushing this year was evident as she got out of the pool from her successful tryout swim. "I'd rather be doing this than nothing, and saving lives is kind of fun," Jamie said, referring to the many simulated rescues that participants must perform.

Laurie Culmback is a veteran Junior Lifeguard mother. Her oldest, 16-year-old Tom Collins, will be a teaching assistant this summer after four years in the program and plans to become a fully certified lifeguard next summer.

His brother, Truth, who is 13 and in his fourth year, considers the program an indispensable part of summer, saying simply: "It's a good time."

Not to be outdone by her older brothers, 11-year-old Mercy Collins made the cut this year after not being a strong enough swimmer last year. "I really wanted to make it this year," she said. In order to assure herself a place in this summer's program, she practiced swimming at a friend's pool during the school year.

Carly Brandon, 16, after enduring the rigors of Junior Lifeguard training since she was 10, is now a certified lifeguard on Ventura County beaches. She has been on the swimming team since entering Ventura High School, where she is a senior, and says that even before she entered the Junior Lifeguard program six years ago, she wanted to be a lifeguard because "I always looked up to them."

Casey Culp, another new Ventura lifeguard, is also a product of the Junior Lifeguard program. Culp, a Ventura High School junior who competes on the water polo and track teams, wanted to be a lifeguard ever since he can remember. "I really love the beach," he said. "Maybe I would like to do this as a career."

Ventura College business student Ian Conley got involved in Junior Lifeguards at age 11 and is now in his fifth year as a lifeguard. Raised in Hawaii and Ventura, Conley says he "decided to be a lifeguard pretty early on because it sounded like a neat summer job . . . and it is.

"I was keeping an eye on three little kids playing in ankle-deep water when I saw a huge wave coming in. I got down off the tower just as the wave was pulling one of the kids out. I pulled him out and grabbed the other two. I felt like a hero that day. It was my best rescue!"

Most of the young participants agree that the Junior Lifeguard program is not a typical relaxed day at the beach, and that run-swim-run drills and swimming in sometimes frigid and choppy waters are a far cry from a dip in the pool. But many return for more, summer after summer.

With more than 10 months between them and last summer's jellyfish sting, sunburn, clammy fog and gritty sand in their suits, they decide that maybe they had a good time after all.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°