INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – Over the last two months, a special visitor has made the rounds to Indian River County elementary schools.
The furry creature came to teach children the importance of staying safe around swimming pools, reminding them to never go near one without an adult.
“They all think they can swim,” Rotary Club of Vero Beach Oceanside member Susan Smith said of kindergarteners.
The Rotary Club partnered up with five others in the Indian River County to bring Josh Otter and his friends to area schools.
Smith said that the Rotary got involved after hearing the statistics of childhood drowning in Florida. Last year, Florida was in the Top 10 for the number of drowning incidents of children under 14.
“You think you’re keeping an eye on them,” Smith said of parents who allow their children out by the pool. “But it can happen in seconds.”
The Josh the Baby Otter water safety program was named for a child, Joshua Collingsworth, who died of complications due to drowning. He was 2 ½ years old. His parents thought he had slipped near the side of the pool when he went in.
Part of the program focuses on teaching young children to never go near a pool without an adult. Another part teaches them to roll onto their back to float if they accidentally go into a pool.
Due to the expense of the program and trying to reach 1,400 children, the Rotary Clubs in Indian River County opted for the pool safety portion of the program rather than the float portion.
As for the float portion, the Rotary Clubs are working to raise funds for scholarships that can be awarded to children for swim classes.
“It’s so expensive to run,” Smith said of the flip and float program. As it was, the Rotary Clubs expected to pay $6,000 to put on the limited Josh the Otter program – covering the cost of renting the mascot and purchasing enough books and coloring books for the kids.
They lucked out this year, according to Smith, because they were able to borrow the costume at no charge.
Next year could be different.
Smith said the clubs would be working with companies in the county, seeking sponsorships to help underwrite the cost of the program so the clubs themselves won’t have to dip so deeply into their coffers.
The Rotary Clubs are working with the Indian River County Recreation Department, which is offering “Josh the Otter Days” on April 9 and May 21.
On those days, children can meet Josh the Otter and parents can learn about various swim classes the department offers at the Gifford and North County aquatic centers.
For more information about Josh the Otter, visit www.JoshTheOtter.org.
To donate or otherwise support the Rotary Clubs’ mission to promote water safety, contact Rotary Club of Vero Beach Oceanside President Maureen Labadie at (772) 589-3025.