PINEVILLE, Mo. — Nearly 400 elementary and middle school students in the McDonald County School District recently traveled to Elk River to learn water safety skills that could help save lives.
Big Elk Floats and Camping in Pineville hosted students in third through eighth grades in an effort to prevent drownings or other accidents on the river.
Big Sugar Creek and Little Sugar Creek meet in Pineville to form the Elk River, a waterway for summer activities.
Most drownings among people 15 years and older occur in natural waters like lakes, rivers or oceans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are an ongoing issue on Elk River.
There were 21 water rescues by emergency responders over Memorial Day weekend on Elk River in 2020 alone.
An average of 3,957 unintentional drowning deaths occurred each year from 2010 through 2019, according to the CDC.
Pat Tinsley, who operates Big Elk Floats and Camping, said their goal with the water safety program is to have zero deaths on the river and incorporate it into all area schools. His wife, Gina, works as a teacher at Noel Elementary School and helped coordinate the inaugural safety program with the district.
“Each class has about 60 kids, and the biggest class is 75 kids,” he said. “It seems like each year we have issues on the river with these folks who come in and see the river and want to play in it. We’re trying to have no drownings this year, so we’re trying to expose them to dangers that they could experience anywhere on the river.”
Jeff Belk, an outdoor education instructor at Rogers High School in Arkansas, led the program. He’s been teaching outdoor education for 22 years and is the president and co-founder of Outdoor CARE, which stands for Conservation and Recreation Education. The nonprofit helps serve youth to have a better life through the outdoors. Belk said nearly 8,000 students in total have taken outdoor classes from him.
“Water quality is our big focus on the science side,” said Belk. “Every trip, we do water quality testing, look at the macro invertebrates. We do chemical testing in water. We clean the trail and the river. We want to make the place better.”
The students learned about dangers inside and outside of the water, how to play safely and take lifesaving tips seriously. Belk pulled up rocks from the river and showed them macro invertebrates, which are indicators of environmental health.
He also told them to be cautious of where they step because snakes are common in and around water. Belk also offered advice if a storm is approaching while on the river.
“When I was in high school, one of my buddies was standing near a tree, and the tree had been struck by lightning,” he said. “The lightning went down the tree, through the root system and up his leg. He was standing above a root, and it shocked his heart. He was dead for two minutes, and they brought him back. You have to be careful. If it’s lightning, I pull all of my kids over, and we get in the lowest area that we can find and stand on our lifejackets. That lifejacket acts as an insulator and can keep lightning from going up your leg.”
Gina Thompson, assistant principal in the McDonald County School District, said water safety was an imperative topic that many of their students didn’t know about. She said that a couple of students have drowned over the years and that they’d like to prevent any future deaths from occurring.
“This is our first year coordinating this, and the students have loved it,” Thompson said. “We’ve debriefed and did some PowerPoints of what they learned. We really feel like it’s going to be beneficial. We’d like to do this every spring. I hope they’re more aware of the strength of the river. At our school, the river is within walking distance.”
Thompson also hopes to teach the students swimming lessons because she said many don’t know how to swim. The water safety program was driven by school staff.
“We did a survey and the one thing that came up, time and time again, was water safety for our kids,” Thompson said. “I think over the course of time, we’ll see the positive effects of this.”
More than 380 students participated in the program May 19-20. Thompson said their student population is diverse and their building has 11 different language speakers.
“We may have students who may come from more desert-like areas, and they don’t know about our rivers,” she said. “We have a large Somali population.”
Robert McGrane, 14, an eighth grader, said he enjoyed the course because he has always loved swimming, which he started when he was 7. He goes swimming every summer and offered his own water safety tips.
“You should never go on high waters and always plan out the area that you want to go to, and check it out beforehand,” he said. “That way, you can know if it’s safe or not.”