A Lifeguard's Purpose

Work sucks, but lifeguarding rocks.

The only enemy in sight is the dark clouds forming in the afternoon, which are bound to bring some lightning.

Regretfully, everyone will pack up and head back home, or into the park to try and wait out the storm so that they can salvage what is left of the hot summer day.

But most of the time, it's just sun and fun.

The lifeguard's responsibility is to keep it that way. Lifeguards have always been a majestic icon representing the serenity of summer.

The children watch the lifeguards on the stand and learn from our actions and character, and on a higher level they are provided an environment that harbors cognitive development and positive self-esteem, assets needed to grow into positive adults, which all can be attributed to the character and, more importantly, the training of the lifeguard.

Water Works

The most widely used pool in Denver is Congress Pool. The past year there was a full staff of 15 guards that worked six days a week in the summer season.

Congress Park has a rich and varied history ever since General William Larimer established a town he called Denver after jumping the claim of the St. Charles Town Company.

I won't get into complicated land law, treaties with the Arapaho and the details of how the park and our pool came to be through the years, but suffice it to say that Congress Park was the site of Denver's first cemetery and ended up as an awesome park and pool site.

The more recent history of Congress Park and Pool is much less eventful, though we think it's just as important in its own way. I was a patron of the pool at one time and took swim lessons in the same pool and spent the same summer days envying the lifeguards.

As lifeguards we have the amazing opportunity to help teach children how to swim. This has a profound impact on a child.

The Red Cross program is what we follow at the pool and each teacher is a certified Water Safety Instructor. Lifeguards teach any person of any ability how to swim, improve their technique, or at least be comfortable in the water.

There is parent-tot class with the parent and child in the water while we sing songs and help create comfort in the water. This is a critical point in the child's life because it allows them to explore the water at an early age in a situation where fun and safety are promoted.

The children and their parents are able to participate in structured activities with other children and the instructor, which make the lessons fun and progressive.

The next levels require the children to be alone in the pool with instructors and other children. The standard structure of a class is to have the children hold on to the wall and move out toward the lifeguard using the skill that is being taught. The children are now able to have confidence in the water and learn skills that help keep them safe.

The lifeguards at Congress are amazing teachers in two ways; they know how to teach well, and they create a fun class that has a positive impact on the children's self-esteem.

The lifeguards at Congress Pool taught 540 children, not including parent-tot, this past summer. There were 540 children exposed to teaching styles that promote self-esteem on behalf of the Congress lifeguards who used positive criticism, encouragement to succeed, and kind gestures in and out of the class that show they care for their students. If only one child gains a better self image and confidence then it is a victory... but 540 is divine.

We're trying to build a child's self-esteem through the same ideas presented by the Caring for Every Child Campaign which are, "Avoiding criticism that takes the form of ridicule or shame; teaching positive self-statements; showing the children that they can laugh at themselves." These are the techniques that are used by the lifeguards so that we might, as Cayla Chavez-Murphy said, "…influence the children beyond the lesson."

The children can reciprocate the values and self image they acquire at the pool through the lifeguards to their lives, which will help them grow and develop. Lifeguards are doing what they think would be right, and fun for the children, but are also helping the children in a more profound way.

A Cool Pool

Another important program at the pool is Pool Cool. Its "main objective is to increase awareness, motivation, and sun protection practices among children ages 5-10 who take swimming lessons, their parents, aquatics staff, and other pool users."

This is a very fun program that gets children excited about learning. The Pool Cool program is trying to raise the awareness of skin cancer because, as the program points out, "Skin cancer is the fastest growing form of cancer in the United States with one million new cases diagnosed each year. It's widely known that protection from the sun's rays could prevent about 90 percent of all skin cancer cases."

Before every class lifeguards ask children if they put on their sunscreen and spend time teaching ways they can prevent sunburns. This is important and we will never know how much we helped prevent cancer in these children.

The lifeguards also stress the importance of wearing certain clothing when they're not in the pool. The Pool Cool Program goes beyond the pool into the children's everyday lives. The lifeguards are able to teach the children using fun assignments like finding the UV index in the newspaper or bringing in their favorite pair of sunglasses or hat and wear them throughout the class.

The instructors are enthusiastic about Pool Cool because it will have a dramatic affect on the children later in life and the children enjoy learning these new and different things.

According to Pool Cool, "Youth are the most at risk for overexposure and have the highest rates of disease due to overexposure before the age of 18."

I have had the pleasure of seeing many children grow up and I can see changes in them each summer. The lifeguards have built relationships with these children and have helped them develop. There are defining moments that can change a person, but more importantly there is "no particular interaction, context, or moment that is all that important. Rather, what is important is the configuration of these relationships over time, setting, and developmental stage," according to Pathways to Positive Development Among Diverse Youth (Richard M. Lerner, Carl S. Taylor and Alexander von Eye, eds.).

It is evident that the relationship and environment we create for the children is produced by "possessing a sense of safety (emotional and physical), social connectedness, a desire to learn and be curious, and a sense of identity and meaning (Lerner, etc.)."

We also develop a sense of safety through our skills as lifesaving professionals. The children see that their parents can trust us to protect them while they are in the water.

The water seems dangerous and can leave a child feeling vulnerable, but they still know that we would let nothing harm them.

Children view us as a support system that will be there for them whenever we are needed. The children always ask us for something, and if we have it we will give it. There is never a situation where a lifeguard would turn a child down.

As head guards, we deal with situations ranging from adults fighting to children who can't find their moms. The children know exactly where to go if they need something. There is a natural inclination for them to search for the lifeguard because to them we can be trusted no matter what.

This trust allows the children to listen and learn from the positive actions of each Congress lifeguard. The Congress lifeguards are able to develop this trust by interacting with the children on a personal level and paying close attention to them as individuals.

We see a lot of the same kids through the summer and at times even I feel like the "adult figure barking out commands," as fellow lifeguard Shawn Olson put it, but everything we do is for their own good.

We intervene in certain situations so that they might learn right from wrong. We don't punish kids; this is not our job. Rather, we exercise negative and positive reinforcement through conditioned learning, which makes the kids more tolerant of us and allows them to feel like they made the right decision on their own.

Teaching them swimming, following rules, safety and respect all contribute to them at this specific time in their life. It also develops the framework for building a positive person in what can often be a negative world.

The conditions at the pool, along with the right intervention strategy, help enable a change in the child. These changes might include respect for authority and other children, or a certain moral level might be achieved.

However, there also must a will, or capacity to change in the child which is the only variable that we cannot account for, but we have the opportunity to help every child if they are open to at least listening to us. Enabling a child to make the right decision and seeing them learn from us is the best feeling in the world.

"To see a child accomplish a skill they didn't think they could do, to have a kid break a fear of diving gives me a great feeling. Or when a child takes a skill they learned and use it, to see a kid race the 25 free and you know you taught them the flutter kick or rhythmic breathing that got them there in the first place is awesome," says Olson.

How we treat the children is the primary teacher, and as lifeguard Matt Pavlakovich says, "I want all my kids to be able to feel free and confident in my class so that they can learn better. I want all my kids to feel equal in spirit and ability."

The pool community itself is also a great teacher for the children. Congress Pool is quite diverse. It is a public pool that only charges $1 for children and $2 for adults. This allows for the poorer community to come to the pool without monetary pressure and interact on an equal level with families like the McGuires, whose parents are medical doctors.

There are people of every color at the pool every day, each interacting with each other. This interaction of children of different ethnicities is a great lesson and its results are intuitive.

Children are able to see that people of other races are just like them and when they observe us in situations it adds to the lesson. When children see the lifeguard handle situations with their own parents, or random strangers, they learn from us as well.

When children see that we enforce the rules to everyone equally they learn and recognize this. Then, when we have to reprimand a child for some reason, they are more tolerant. "Adults who are warm and accepting, firm about the rules and discipline, and supportive of individuality tend to aid children in the development of positive behavior," according to Linda L. Dunlap in What All Children Need.

The Congress lifeguards were not born with whistles in their mouths. Congress guards are amazing people, but without the proper, and in our case excellent, training we would not have such an impact on these children's lives.

As stated earlier we are all Red Cross certified and very well trained. The Red Cross program is the spark that lit the fire. The lifeguards at Congress are the teachers and facilitators for the children. Every teacher at one time was a student first and in our case we were lucky enough to learn through the Red Cross and have a teacher like Lee Ragon.

Ragon has been teaching for the Red Cross for over 40 years and has received the highest award given by the Red Cross. Lee has taught the essentials of being a first responder and could be credited for many lives saved that might have been lost if not for the rescuer who learned from him.

Our training is a never-ending process that allows us not to have to think in any given situation. Rather, we react, scanning the pool like robots, looking for the accident that will be avoided because of our training.

In our continued training Lee stresses the importance of perfect technique in all that we do. After continued practice Lee sets a higher standard that pushes us to move quicker while keeping the same perfect technique, which in a life or death situation will mean that we keep a high standard of care when minutes, and even seconds, count.

Lee has the uncanny ability to teach, and truly touch his pupils in a profound way so that when they receive their certification they are ready for the unexpected.

The Denver guards are among the best trained guards in the nation and it is evident through their work with the children and the statistics that show that there has not been a drowning in 11 years.

We have the respect of the children we teach and Lee has every guard's respect. This respect does the same thing for the lifeguards being taught by Lee as the children that are taught by the guards. It allows for the positive interaction that changes a person for the better.

The job description of a lifeguard is far more than what is listed in the Lifeguarding Handbook. The lifeguards at Congress Pool play an important role in the children's lives. We have been given the opportunity to help children develop into positive people. The children are constantly looking to us for friendship and help in any situation and they try to learn and mimic us.

There is no better person to mimic than a Congress guard because we have had the opportunity to be in their situation, looking up to our peer and learning from him. Our peer has been Lee Ragon. Our skills are born from the Red Cross. Our excellence is derived from both. Together we can save lives.

Jarratt Pytell is a student the University of Colorado, Boulder, and has served as a head guard for Denver Aquatics at Congress Pool.

Bryan BuchkoComment