By Léo Azambuja
What would happen if every year, more than 300 new volunteer lifeguards would help the county’s water safety officers to keep Kaua‘i beaches safe for locals and visitors?
The answer is, they already do. And none of them graduated high school yet.
Seventeen years ago, Kaua‘i was the first county in the state to implement the Junior Lifeguard Program, a summer training for children ages 13 to 17. Two years ago, the county created the Keiki Lifeguard Program to include children ages 8 to 12.
The widely successful program teaches children several rescue skills with different equipment, how to prevent a potential accident and how to call for assistance. But the children also have fun competing in beach games and learning about teamwork and fitness.
“We started off with about 12 kids in our first session, and today we probably get about over 150 to 200 kids, and that’s only in the juniors,” said Ocean Safety Bureau Supervisor Kalani Vierra, adding the keiki program graduates the same amount of children.
“That’s 350 people out there that can save someone’s life,” said lifeguard Kaimi Kaneholani, himself a product of the same program he now helps as an instructor.
The county offers five weeklong classes in four different locations: The first class is at Salt Pond, then at Kalapaki, Po‘ipu, Hanalei and back to Kalapaki. Each class can take as many as 100 children — 50 for the junior program and 50 for the keiki.
The program became so popular that the county cannot accept every child due to being limited in the number of instructors, according to Kaneholani.
“We’re going to strive for more manpower next year,” he said.
Vierra, lifeguard Eugene Ancheta, supervisor Randy Ortiz and former lifeguard Kaleo Hookano were the four original instructors who in 1997 ran the first Junior Lifeguard Program.
Ancheta said the program was modeled after a Mainland program that had been running for many years. From Kaua‘i, the Junior Lifeguard Program quickly spread to other islands. Vierra is hoping the keiki program will too spread to other islands.
The Garden Isle junior lifeguards never let anyone forget who brought the program to Hawai‘i — Kaua‘i won the last 10 editions of the annual state competition, which rotates islands each year.
“We’re going for 11 (consecutive state titles) this year,” Ancheta said of the state games scheduled for Aug. 2 at Kalapaki Beach. (The results were available after press time.)
On the day after the state competitions, a group of junior lifeguards boarded a plane to Virginia to compete in the nationals. Last year, competing for the first time in the nationals at Manhattan Beach, Calif., 21 Kaua‘i junior lifeguards returned home with 17 medals.
Also last year, a group of children from Australia participated in the program in Hanalei Bay. Vierra said he has a goal to take the children to Australia sometime in the next five years for a cultural and program-training exchange.
But competition is just one aspect of the program.
“We’re surrounded by a body of water, so it’s very important for us — kids, adults, for everyone — to know how to swim,” Ancheta said.
And when it comes down to put into practice what they have learned, the children have made an emphatic difference by performing rescues and by educating visitors about the ocean.
“We have a lot of junior lifeguards that have been logged for rescues they have done,” Kaneholani said.
When he was 14 years old, Kaneholani enrolled in the Junior Lifeguard Program. His class, he said, had only 15 kids.
“I was kinda interested in helping people in the water because I love the ocean,” he said.
Encouraged by his instructors, he kept returning to the program every year until he graduated high school. A few years later, Kaneholani would become a county lifeguard.
Now, about to turn 30-years-old, Kaneholani spends part of his summer teaching kids in the same program that helped to shape his future. He said it’s his way of “giving back,” and there are already four kids who took the program under him who have become county lifeguards.
Much of the funding from the children’s travels to other islands and to the Mainland comes from the Kaua‘i Lifeguard Association, a nonprofit organization that has placed more than 200 — and counting — rescue tubes on beaches and other bodies of the water on Kaua‘i and has contributed in many other ways to maximize ocean safety.
Visit www.kauailifeguards.org to donate to KLA or for more information.