Mt. Eccles School swim lessons inspire confidence

Personal flotation devices and survival suits incorporated into program

Third-grader Skyla Hallquist tests out a survival suit as Mt. Eccles physical education teacher Jeff Hamberger assists, at the Bob Korn Memorial Pool on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times
Third-grader Skyla Hallquist tests out a survival suit as Mt. Eccles physical education teacher Jeff Hamberger assists, at the Bob Korn Memorial Pool on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times

Eight-year-old Aiden Flores inched his way to the end of the diving board.

Encouraged by swim teacher Jeff Hamberger, soon the boy’s toes dangled off the edge of the board, and finally he jumped, making a big splash into the pool below.

Cheers, words of encouragement and praise filled the huge room at the Bob Korn Memorial Pool as Flores came to the surface and swam to the side.

By the end of class, Flores had jumped off the diving board three times, becoming less hesitant with each jump.

“He’s getting more confident,” Nora Flores said, as she watched her son, proudly taking videos.

The Cordova School District swimming and water safety program offers lessons for kindergarten through sixth grade students at Mt. Eccles Elementary School. The lessons, one hour, once a week, run for the entire school year, adding up to around 30 lessons per year.

The first half of the year is spent learning strokes while the second half is spent working on assists, use of personal flotation devices, flippers, snorkel/mask, survival suits and floats, boat safety and even jumping into the water in full clothing.

The survival suits were donated by the U.S. Coast Guard and families around town whose children had outgrown the suits. The program is always in search for more suits, child or small adult, due to the wear and tear the old suits go through.

Hamberger, the elementary school physical education teacher, has been teaching the swim program for 17 of the program’s 47-year history.

“It’s one of those jobs that you have that you don’t really think you’re doing much until all of sudden someone comes in and says, ‘Hey it saved my life …’,” he said. “In reality, a lot of lives have been saved because of the program.”

Hamberger walks the perimeter of the pool, encouraging each student as they swim.

“Come on Nancy! Show me what you got!” he said, as a youngster prepares for a jump off the diving board. The room gets quiet, then comes a loud splash. “Way to go Nancy!” says Hamberger, as she reaches the side of the pool, a grin spread across her face.

Hamberger makes his way to the shallow end of the pool, to tell another youngster, “Hey Mathew, good job floating on your back!”

Karen Hallquist stands in the water with Mathew, holding her hands under his back as he floats.

“From what I understand, this is pretty unique to Cordova,” Hallquist said of the program. “I have worked at pools for 25 years teaching swim lessons and this is the first time I’ve ever seen an elementary school that allows kids to come once a week to learn swimming and water safety.”

Hallquist, the program’s instructional aide, assists Hamberger during the lessons.

The growth in water confidence is visible. By the time the sixth-grade class arrives, the students are eager to get in the deep end.

Fifth-grader Yagnnesis Mejias, 10, helps classmates get in and out of their survival suits.

Mejias said she loves coming to the pool and that having lessons with her friends makes it easier.

First-grader Grace Higgins, 6, gained confidence around the pool after swimming in the lake with her dad.

“At first, I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t know how to swim.”

Now, she enjoys swim lessons with her class.

“The water is okay as long as you have a life jacket on,” she said.

Hallquist advises parents to bring their children to the pool and get them used to being around water. She encourages parents who are afraid of the water to encourage their children to take swim lessons seriously.

“A lot of times we see parents who are afraid of the water and that reflects on their children.”

Hallquist helps students pull the hoods up on their survival suits.

The students line the side of the pool. One student slowly raises his foot off the side and hops in, taking lead as the others follow. They float buoyantly in the water and try to make a link by holding onto each other’s arm.

Other students wait for their turn, as their classmates hobble around in the Neoprene suits.

“The best part of my job is to see the kids enjoy being a part of the swim program,” Hallquist said. “That’s as good as it gets right there.”

Life jacket stations

There are two life jacket stations located around the harbor for borrowing life jackets if needed. The federal law requires anyone who is 13 years or younger to wear a life jacket on any water craft.

  • Harbor Master’s Office
  • Covered approach in North Harbor across from Cordova Outboard Inc.