Kyrene de la Colina first-grader Gabby Fonseca made her personal pledge in March at Water Safety Day. Since tehn, the humber of water-related incidents has doubled.

In late March, more than 1,000 first-graders - including dozens from Ahwatukee Foothills elementary schools - attended an annual water safety event intended to instill in young minds the potential dangers of water from buckets to swimming pools. At the time of the event (March 27) there had been 17 water-related incidents, six of which resulted in death. It was an alarming rate for a state that had yet to reach the official swim season, but in little more than six weeks, that number has jumped to a staggering 31 water-related incidents and 12 deaths - half of those children under the age of 12. "It's just heartbreaking," said Tiffaney Isaacson, water safety coordinator for Phoenix Children's Hospital. "Arizona leads the nation in drownings - an injury that is 100 percent preventable." Now that the heat has arrived more families will be spending their time at the pool, and Memorial Day looms just around the corner - a water recreation-heavy holiday and a reminder for at least one Arizona couple of the serious repercussions of parents letting just a few seconds of distraction slip by. Druann and Tom Letter, a Kyrene School District teacher and Chandler firefighter, lost their 3-year-old son while vacationing over the long Memorial Day weekend in 1998. In just moments Weston slipped out of view and into a nearby pool, and, after his death, the Letters founded the Water Watchers education and prevention program. A majority of Maricopa County's child drownings are Weston's age or younger, which begs the question, who is most in need of water safety education? Many point a finger to parents, but Isaacson is quick to point out that it's not quite that simple. "You hear about all these small children in pools and two things jump out at me," she said. "A lot of things are common sense, but there a lot of misconceptions, too." The biggest factor in most small child drowning cases is that the parents are not expecting their children to be around any water- pools or otherwise. Such was the case with Weston. The Water Watchers program takes this into account when designing and building their curriculum. When the Ahwatukee Foothills first-graders left Water Safety Day, they brought home with them not just reminders and information for themselves, but for their parents, too. "We have strong parent involvement in the curriculum," Isaacson said. "One of the activities they did was make a hand print and sign a pledge, which was already framed. As a parent, I know that anything with a handprint is automatically a keepsake. Parents will be sure to look at that and read it and think, 'What does this pledge really mean?'" The program also tries to educate parents in a deeper sense, Isaacson said, by stressing the importance of barriers and fences, keeping pool furniture - or anything that can be used to climb on - inside the pool area, and keeping toys away from the pool. "We tell them to regularly check the latch on their pool fence - make it part of their routine, like every time you pay your water bill, go and check the fence," she added. "Cut branches back that grow near the fence so kids can't climb over - nothing is worse than having that false sense of security - to have a fence that becomes absolutely ineffective." It may be working. Last year, Maricopa County saw a decrease in child fatalities due to drowning. From 2005 to 2006, less than half as many deaths were from drownings, but the number of water-related incidents remained virtually the same; 107 in 2005 and 98 in 2006. "People need to realize that just because a child doesn't die from a drowning incident that they are not affected," Isaacson said. "In 10 percent of water-related incidents, there is severe brain damage - just because they do not die does not mean they are OK." Many survivors require around-the-clock care for the rest of their lives - kids who were once active and affectionate become completely dependent, and the financial and emotional burden on families is immeasurable. The most recent statistics show that with Memorial Day - a time many consider the official start to summer - still over a week away, the Valley has already overshot last year's decreased death rate. For more information on the Water Watchers program or to download the water education curriculum, visit Phoenix Children's Hospital Web site at For pool safety tips and city information on pool fencing codes, visit --Lauren Vasquez can be reached at (480) 898-7917 or

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