For nearly 75 years, Burrillville Lions swim program helps keep young heads above water

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BURRILLVILLE – On a warm Tuesday afternoon, swim instructor James Haczynski leads a small pack of kids into a shallow patch of water – neck deep for his young students.

“Kick,” he yells as the group of 3-5 year-olds splashes across the lake. “Use your arms too!”

“I like to make the class challenging but fun,” Haczynski said later. “When they don’t think they can do it, and then they do it, that gives them confidence.”

The group is just the latest to benefit from a program that’s helped generations of Burrillville residents to build that confidence and feel safe in the water – and that’s given their parents some summertime peace of mind.

Launched the same year as the inception of the club itself, the Burrillville Lions’ Club Swim program offered its first affordable lessons to town residents in 1947. The initial location was The Point at Pascoag Reservoir, a private beach with a diving board, a snack bar and changing rooms.

Thomas Eccleston Jr, then a teacher and coach at Burrillville High School, was the first director. Eccleston had earned his YMCA certification as a swimming instructor at Camp Massapoag, in Dunstable Mass., as did a number of his students at BHS, and he recruited many to work under his direction with the Lions program.

A picture originally published in The Woonsocket Call in 1947 and taken by photographer Louis Bleiweis shows Lion Thomas Eccleston with the inaugural class. Bleiweis, a Pascoag resident who was also a Lions Club member, was one of the chief advocates for the Learn to Swim program. Bleiweis Park in Burrillville was later named after him and is maintained by members of the club,

Lessons later moved to Flynn’s Beach, and were taught by many members of the club and their families.

“Many relatives of members acted as instructors,” said Richard Nolan, a current club member who is active with the program. Many, Nolan explained, had taken life-saving training courses with the Red Cross or local scouting troops – or “were just good swimmers.” The list of former instructors includes Nolan’s own aunt, and two of his sisters.

Nolan himself took the class as a kid, and it also helped Lion Club member Tom Tatro learn to swim many decades ago.

Tatro’s father was one of the founding club members who started the program, and recently, his son Zachary took the class.

“We each had a small hand in keeping the program going,” he said of generations of the Tatro family.

Tatro notes that the program used to have a diving and jumping component, with the youngest class of students – then known as the, “Tadpoles,” leaping into the water from, “Little Rock,” while their older equivalents would dive from, “Big Rock.”

Lion Mike Karmozyn ran the program in the 1990s, and his two kids were also instructors.

“It goes from generation to generation,” Nolan said.

Lions themselves no longer teach the classes, instead providing support from the shoreline. Several years ago, lifeguards started running the lessons, and now, certified instructors are hired each summer to lead the program, taught at Spring Lake Beach thanks to a partnership with the town.

“The town has been very helpful, supplying the venue, and now instructors,” said Nolan. “We don’t have our own pond.”

Beach Manager Judy Lopez found and hired the current crop to lead the 15 young swimmers in the 2021 class, including Hacyznski, who previously taught classes at the YMCA.

“It’s definitely worth $5 a day,” said Barbara LaMarre, whose grandson completed one of Hacyznski’s recent classes. “He’s a very good instructor.”

Haczynski works with a young student.

“I gauge each class by the swimmers’ abilities,” the instructor said, noting that repetition is key. “It’s a good program. It’s fun for the kids and it’s fun to teach.”

LaMarre noted that the program helps caregivers feel more at ease in the summer months.

“My parents have a pool, so we’re just trying to make sure we’re comfortable,” LaMarre said. “It’s a great program.”

Parent Glenn Dusablon said he hopes to sign up his son Ben for a second class. Kids graduate levels, starting with beginner, and leading to intermediate once their skills improve. Swimmers are divided into age groups, with earlier classes offered to 3 to 5-year-olds, while the later classes serve children ages 6-12. Each child receives a certificate of completion and an ice cream after finishing the week-long program.

Dusablon said he also hopes to enroll his younger son next year, once he turns 3.

“He just enjoys it,” Dusablon said of Ben, while Hacynski could be heard in the background, starting a relay race to keep the kids engaged. “He’s definitely more comfortable in the water.”

Classes have run every year except 2020, with many of the parents participating nearby in the water, ready to encourage the swimmers – or give the push needed to keep them learning.

“It was wonderful,” Tatro said of his son Zachary’s recent class. “The instructor had an abundance of skill, patience and kindness.”

This year, the club plans to sponsor a second swim session in August. Parents can register by visiting the beach or calling (401) 568-9474.

For Nolan, it’s a commitment to helping local kids stay summer safe that is now a long-standing Burrillville tradition.

“Any kid who learns to swim is one that will not drown by accident,” he said.

Editor’s note: The above article has been updated from its original version to include more history of the program. Publisher Sandy Seoane is a member of the Burrillville Lions Club.

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