Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Salvavidas Junior: The Junior Lifeguard Program in Lima

Video from the closing ceremony...but let's read how we got here...

Group photo

It is something that I’ve always wanted to do, and that we may all strive for. To take parts of our youth, those that brought us joy and personal development and presently bring us fond memories, and share them with others. This has been the motive, or at least the inspiration, for the Junior Lifeguard program that I’ve been organizing in Lima during the past few months. The experience has been rewarding for many people and for many reasons can be called a real success. We were able to connect with twenty nine kids, ages eleven to seventeen, at the beach, sharing with them the summer ocean program that was the joy of not only my youth, but that of thousands of past participants worldwide.

Running with the kids on the first day of the program

Focus. Explaining the details of our last buoy swim. 800 meters long.

I grew up in Santa Monica spending my summers participating in a junior lifeguard program run by the Los Angeles County Lifeguards. My mom slipped me into that summer camp at eight years old, although the minimum age was and is nine. I continued most every summer until I was eighteen and started to work as an ocean lifeguard alongside my previous instructors. The program lasted five weeks, three hours a day, and while its general focus is that of developing lifeguarding skills in the youth, an equally important outcome is the blossoming of self confidence in front of a the all powerful and always respected OCEAN. For me, it was the way that I learned how to confront something that is bigger than I am, and understand how to use it as the way to look within myself to analyze and push my limits, and enjoy doing just that. The program also taught me how to be humble by realizing that there will always be something bigger and better than me, but that even with this knowledge, or maybe because of this knowledge, I must stay strong.

This is Stoyko. Oceanman.

While I’m not sure that I conveyed all of this to those twenty nine kids during our junior lifeguard program in Lima, which met three hours a day for a month, something did come across; by the end of the month I could sense that they all grew both as individuals and as a group.

Daily activities. Working on a relationship with the sand.

Our first day shocked me. They were too quiet and too obedient. Most are sons and daughters of police officials, and the program was organized through our good friends at the lifeguard headquarters of the Peruvian National Police force, but they are kids, and as Carlos has said many times, when kids together are quiet, it means that something is wrong.

View from the water: lifeguard headquarters and the kids starting a buoy swim.

Nothing was really wrong, except that no one knew each other nor did they know what to expect of this junior lifeguard camp, and things started to loosen up after we did our first baño de la foca. El baño de la foca, which we call pencil fish back home (and here translate as seal swim), consists of dragging yourself across the sand to the water’s edge, and continuing on until the waves splash over your head. The girls all stayed behind, none willing to drag themselves across that icky sand, and instead sat there indefinitely, waiting and laughing. The guys all completed the activity, some cheating by quickly scampering over the sand and into the ocean, but when there, doing a really good job of calling the girls to the water with yelps and insults. Eventually we all made it past the sand and carried out our first bottom check of the summer, talking about the characteristics of the ocean floor below.

Discipline in Peru....or just a photo trick

The ice was broken and the summer officially began, if not with el baño de la foca, definitely with our first buoy swim. We were five instructors strong, and I’m not sure which of the kids would have actually made it past the surf line without their help, but we all did, alive and in good spirits.

Fruit day!!!!

It is actually the collaboration of this awesome group of fellow instructors that has been the key factor in the program’s success. Aside from Carlos, my homeboy from Spain (and if I you notice that I randomly switch between first person singular and plural, it’s because I spend so much time with Carlos that we can generally speak for eachother), we’ve also been blessed with the presence of Melissa Lantaron, Claudia Ore, and Miguel Rosales. They are all lifeguard-police who were given the job of helping us run this first junior lifeguard program.

Our closing ceremony. Check-out the armed officials.

I could go on to explain the beauty of each of their personalities, but I’ll keep it brief by saying that Melissa is a delicate gem with Arab ancestry who could barter the coat off of an Eskimo (and her bartering skills have come in handy as we’ve made our uniforms). Claudia is a first year guard who is full of smiles and loves fruit (we totally connect on this issue). She is from the Amazon and learned how to swim in the rivers of her town. Miguel is the wise and pragmatic man who has years of experience with the lifeguard-police but prefers to work with kids. He gives a clean critique of lifeguard headquarters that is a refreshing light amongst so much patriotism. Melissa is 29, Claudia is 21, and Miguel is 40 something years old. This is our working crew.

The instructors: Claudia, Max, Carlos, Melissa, Miguel.

The program was run at Playa Los Delfines in La Costa Verde of Lima, or the beach in front of lifeguard headquarters. This beach can be characterized by a small section of shore break followed by 350 meters of tranquil waters that lead to an offshore break. This means that once you get past the shore break, the coast is clear for the next 350 meters, something we had to reinforce time and time again as our kids consistently choose to stand paralyzed in the shore break and get pounded by the surf. The offshore break was too far to make use of, although for learning how catch waves on a rescue board or in a kayak it would have been the perfect spot. By the end of the program, however, those 350 meters didn’t seem so far away.

We learned to love the shore-pound at our beach

Carlos and I tried to plan each day, creating a cohesive series of lesson plans that we are currently incorporating into a complete Junior Lifeguard Program Manuel. We’re going to leave this manual with lifeguard headquarters in Lima and also use it as our project proposal to find grant money for next year. The fact that we planned each day in advance made the time fly by. I never used to lesson plan with the junior guard program in L.A., and remember that the days seemed longer (in a very slightly painful sense) than any of the days with the kids in Lima. Yet even with all this planning we rarely finished a day at twelve noon (and never before). And while I would have had lines of parents waiting stranded across the Sahara sands at our beach in Santa Monica, waiting and worrying about why their kid wasn’t ready to go home at exactly twelve, there was never a problem with the days that we let the kids go at 1pm or with the fact that on a normal basis the program tended to end at 12:30pm.

On the bus, full of boards and kayaks. Going camping.

A typical day of the junior lifeguard program begins at 9:00am with a few minutes of gathering and talking on the sand while kids arrive late, put on sunscreen and we take roll. We than go on a run to the end of the beach and back, about 1.5km, sometimes stopping to stretch or talk about ocean conditions. Next up is a water activity/competition, something like a 400m swim, or a run-swim-run, always prefaced by a bottom check. Free time is incorporated into the post competition plan, and by 10:15am we are ready for the next set of activities. We’ll usually do some sort of lecture on CPR or first-aid and then move on to a game like nation ball or flags. Because of limited equipment, we do a lot of work in smaller groups, and most often spend the last hour of the program with the kids rotating in smaller groups between a set of 3 or 4 stations. We always run out of time and at 12:15pm are still with the kids, spending a few last minutes rinsing off in the water. On days that we gave power-point presentations using the projector, we would begin the day inside with the given lesson and then move to the sand.

See the three flags on our uniforms: Spain, Peru, the US. Oh yes.

It took a lot of demystifying to encourage our kids to get past the surf line and swim. Most Peruvians have a very interesting relationship with the ocean, something I’d already sensed before the JG program and became more attuned to throughout. People here don’t understand the ocean and thus fear it. They always talk about this anomalous surf (oleaje anamolo) as if there was something really strange or totally unknown about wave direction or tides. And when they say to you “Mañana esta previsto oleaje anamolo” they say it with this look of fear in their eyes that seems as deep and far away as the Mariana Trench. This profound sense of the unknown stretches across all age and economic groups in Lima, from the wealthiest mothers and fathers, to the sons and daughters of the police (and I’ve been working with both groups).

Demystifying the ocean.

Me, El Comandante Ramos, Carlos

One of the major goals of the Junior Lifeguard program has been to demystify the ocean for this group of kids and thus allow them to enjoy the water. One of the ways that we’ve done this has been the constant teaching of ocean safety and knowledge of how to move within the surf. The other has been through a series of lectures on things like how and why waves form and break, which has helped the kids understand that a wave doesn’t suddenly break in the middle of the ocean just because it wants to, which they all feared it would. In this respect, we’ve seen an amazing growth and development take place in every kid, something highlighted in their activities during the non-structured portions of each day (aka free time). Where at first a mild group of five to ten JG’s would enjoy the water during these brief moments of freedom, by the end of the program, even the typically most scared junior lifeguard could be seen in the water splashing around.

Martin and Christian. Laughing, but actually scared that a wave is going to crash on them.

Our bus. Ready to go on our camping trip. We actually lost that dog at the beach, but they found it a week later.

Carlos and I covered the general curriculum of basic first-aid and CPR, and were very surprised by how well they absorbed the information. If not sincerely interested, they usually paid attention and were able to answer our questions following each lesson. There was, of course, the sand throwing that had to be controlled, along with the joke cracking during chest compressions or mouth to mouth simulations, but nothing that was all that different from the JG program back home.

Teaching CPR

Teaching CPR

Another part of the program’s success, aside from the support of our fellow instructors, can be attributed to the openness of Latin American social structure. The fact that the kids and their families didn’t have their days scheduled to the minute (as it seems like we do in L.A.) allowed us to extend program hours on a regular basis. We were also able to organize a two day camping excursion at a beach south of Lima without the fear of a lawsuit. Hugs, kisses on the check, and other types of non-sexual physical contact were not counseled against as they are when working with kids in the U.S., and it seemed as though this freedom of contact-greeting allowed us to grow more comfortably as a family group.

The bus. Leaving the camping beach. Check-out the desert coast.

Kayaking during our camping trip. We we're accompanied by a group of 30 dolphins.

Breakfast during our camping trip at a little restaurant-shack.

One of the most interesting parts of this experience has been the opportunity to recreate the junior lifeguard program, not from scratch, but by changing and adding to the structure of an existing foundation things that I think would make it better. Yet it has been equally important to stay conscientious of the fact the very foundation of the program we implemented in Lima couldn’t be taken as a clear cookie cut of the Los Angeles County Junior Lifeguard program. The reality of our resources (equipment, beach quality and participants) alongside the generally low level of swimming, make for a different structure to our program. In Lima we focused much less on competition and lifeguarding as a profession, and much more on ocean swimming skills and the demystification of the sea. We also shared more stories of our lives, of our countries and our future plans, because cultural exchange with kids that probably won’t leave Peru was an equally important part of our curriculum. I’ll never forget the hours we spent lying on the sand in a circle answering and asking questions with bursts of laughter.

Sharing stories of our lives

As compared to the standard curriculum of the L.A. County JG program, I’ve added a fair amount of environmental education and oceanography to the structure of the JG program in Lima. Having access to the projector at lifeguard headquarters has facilitated these lectures, and over the course of the month we were able to put together a few really good power-point presentations on topics such as oceanic currents, the water cycle, the life of plastic, and bioaccumulation. I would have liked to touch more upon the diversity of marine life along the Peruvian coast, and identify some of the birds, kelp and mammals, but our curriculum was broad and the time resulted short. There were other topics that were also cut short, but in a month long program there was no way to include everything that we would have liked. What we are discussing, however, is to create two different levels of the junior guard program and thus broaden its entire scope by separating course content into levels.

Power point lectures in the "Casino"

Nation Ball...a Junior Lifeguard Classic (Quemadas in Peru)

Permanence is the major question we are left with at the end of our month long experiment. Success has been proven in this first year, but real success will only come if we can figure out how to continue with what we’ve started. One way would be to deepen the program’s perspective and allow more kids to participate by creating two different levels. Our beach wouldn’t be big enough for the activities of these two groups of thirty kids at the same time, thus if we wanted to have two levels, we would have to hold one session in January and the other in February- and this would work just fine.

Playing flags.

Getting familiar with the seaweed

In terms of equipment, a first aid kit, a few rescue boards and some rescue cans would go a long way. The CSLA (California State Lifesaving Association) generously donated $300 that we will use to buy a few rescue cans, some playing balls, a first aid kit, and container to put it all in. On February 14th, 2010, Carlos and I are going to participate in a swim across the Bay of Lima (24km). The first prize is $500. Carlos is going to be the guide on a 12ft long paddle board, I’m going to swim, and we’re going to win $500 to buy at least one more board for our JG program in Lima. But really I’m going to look for some grant money to be able to return next year with Carlos and continue the program, which I think would help to solidify it as tradition at lifeguard headquarters in Lima.


While our first buoy swim of the summer took all five of us instructors to get those twenty odd kids past the shore break, by the end of the program we couldn’t get them out of the water. On the day of our closing ceremony, after we had done their traditional fan (all in a line, free falling one after the other into the pool), we moved to the ocean for a last seal swim. As we made our way into the water, all of us fully clothed, there was a loud and contingent holler that we should swim to the rompiente, or the off-shore break…we told them they were crazy for wanting to swim that far in their clothes (but obviously glad they had recommended it).

Images from our closing ceremony.

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