BURRILLVILLE – Patricia Potter says her grandson was four years old, and seemingly comfortable in the water, when she tried taking off his arm floaties – or “puddle jumpers” – as she calls them.
The young boy sank, without resistance, to the bottom of the pool.
For Potter, a lifelong swimmer who had taught others in the family the skill, it was an “ah ha,” moment.
“He had no clue how to stay up,” Potter said.
Drowning, Potter notes, is the number one cause of unintentional death among children ages 1-4. It’s the second leading cause for children under age 12, and for every child that drowns, eight more suffer swim-related injuries.
“That’s a big deal,” she said. “It’s more deadly than anything.”
And so, at 58 years old, after decades of work as a hairdresser, Potter changed direction and decided to become a lifeguard.
Potter became certified, and soon found herself teaching, “Mommy and me”-style classes at the Woonsocket YMCA. The sessions aim get young children accustomed to the water, with much of the time dedicated to playing games and singing.
“I felt like there was way more to it,” she said. “I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. I wanted to do more.”
A Burrillville resident who worked as a hairdresser at a variety of locations over a 30 year career, Potter began researching infant swim rescue.
“Doctors saying swimming lessons are more beneficial at age one,” she said. “You can teach them how to float, and save their life. When they know about water, and respect the water.”
But she quickly learned that courses to become certified in ISR were hard to come by, would cost up to $20,000.
Potter began searching for potential sponsors and spent nearly six months writing letters to different foundations about her mission.
“I didn’t want to give up,” she said.
She notes she was nearly out of options when she heard from Kathy Collingsworth of the Nebraska-based Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation. Kathy and her husband Blake formed the foundation in 2008 after losing their son, Josh, to accidental drowning.
“It’s not about being negligent,” Potter said. “Kids are mischievous and they get away on you.”
With a mission is to educate children and adults about water safety and drowning prevention, the Collingworths worked with the YMCA of Lincoln, Neb. to develop the concept for Float 4 Life, an infant and toddler water-training course.
The group taught some 9,000 classes last year, training both instructors and youth.
“I flew there. They were so good to me,” said Potter. “They were amazing.”
That was five months ago. and Potter can still be found at the YMCA, working with children and babies – and has added some of what she learned to the curriculum. She’s also teaching private lessons.
“I do it because I want to save lives,” she said.
Potter is also working with one group of 6-14 year-olds and notes that swim lessons can build confidence and enhance safety at any age.
“I cannot believe how they’re succeeding,” she said of the older group. “They’ve been transformed. It’s amazing to me.”
Float 4 Life, she notes, is geared for children ages six months to six years old, and is generally taught in private sessions, just once a week for 15 minutes.
“It’s very intense,” Potter said. “A lot of them cry.”
And for parents relying on floatation devices to help toddlers, she has a message: Take those floaties off your child a lot when you’re present with them.
It’s a cause she’s clearly passionate about.
“There’s a cure for this dilemma – and now I know it,” she said.
Those who would like to learn more about Potter’s can contact her directly at (401) 309-9361 or email Patriciapotter1963@gmail.com