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After drownings in Fargo area, new American kids learning water survival skills

Instructor Paulina Bekkum, center, helps teach a water survival class Feb. 25 at Hulbert Aquatic Center in West Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 1 / 3
Instructor Brett Whited helps Jerry Vah, 15, learn to float during a water survival class Feb. 25 at Hulbert Aquatic Center in West Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 2 / 3
Youth attend a water survival class Feb. 25 at Hulbert Aquatic Center in West Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 3 / 3

FARGO — The tragic drownings last summer of a 6-year-old South Sudanese boy and 9-year-old Liberian-American girl prompted police to create free water survival programs for new Americans.

Further inspiration for starting the program, said Fargo Police Cultural Liaison Officer Vince Kempf, was a special report by The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead following the drownings that illustrated an alarming trend, locally and across the U.S. and Canada.

Of the five unintentional drownings in the Fargo-Moorhead area between June 2017 and June 2018, all victims were either black, American Indian, immigrants or children of recent immigrants.

A drowning expert with the American Red Cross, Linda Quan, said “drowning is a cultural problem," and reaching out to those populations at greater risk of drowning is an effective preventative method.

That's what Fargo and West Fargo police are now doing, and it's the same approach Quan took when she recognized higher drowning rates a decade ago in Seattle's Vietnamese community. Also, a drowning prevention program in Canada, the Lifesaving Society, recognized that immigrants were four times more likely to drown.

“It’s true they (new Americans) were less likely to know how to swim,” Kempf said.

Last summer in the span of three days, 9-year-old Grace Bettie drowned at a swimming hole in Buffalo River State Park about 15 miles east of Fargo on June 27. Then on June 29, 6-year-old David Logulomo drowned in a West Fargo retention pond by his family's apartment.

"The whole purpose is to hopefully prevent an incident like the unfortunate ones we've seen in the past," said West Fargo Cultural Liaison Officer Ryan Feltman, who is leading West Fargo's water survival program.

The first group of 13 kids recently finished a six-week program, and a dozen more kids were wrapping up the program. Kempf said the goal was to get 100 to 150 new American youth through the program, so free lessons will be offered until that goal is reached or funds run out.

There's no cost to kids participating due to donations to Badges of Unity, a youth-focused program through the Fargo Police Department that looks to address key issues. Feltman said the West Fargo Police Department is taking donations to sustain the program for as long as there's interest in the community.

Feltman said the programming is more geared toward water survival skills rather than traditional swimming lessons. Kids between the ages of 6 and 14 are taught how to stay afloat and be comfortable in water. He said many of the kids were more timid when the classes first started, but most have found a level of comfort and enjoy spending time in the water.

He said the programs are for anyone who doesn't know how to swim, and are not limited to new Americans. The program is aimed at youth at risk of drowning, including new Americans.

Carlson plans on expanding programming for new American kids this summer by offering free classes on hiking, fishing and camping. He said the programs will go hand in hand with swimming safety.