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Posted 7/1/2014

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By Erica Skolte

This is the first year Bill and Jamie Wagner have volunteered in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ water safety program, but they put on a show that leaves a lasting impression.

“I’ve always wanted to make a positive impact. It’s a great opportunity to go into the schools and meet the little ones,” said Jamie. "One of the benefits of teaching is being a part of the synergy and student interaction during the class."

Jamie demonstrates how to wear a life vest correctly. She teaches students how to choose the right size personal flotation device, how to ensure it’s an approved life vest, and how to inspect it for damage such as rips, tears or mildew. First, she tries on a life vest that’s child-sized and too small. The children yell, “Too small!” When she tries to put on Bobber the Water Safety Dog’s life vest, the children yell out, “Too big!” Finally, she finds one that fits “just right.”

“We were coming out of Walmart one day, and three little girls who were there with their moms, recognized us,” said Jamie. One of the girls, a first-grader, approached the Wagners and said “I know Bobber’s first water safety tip.” “What is it?” they asked. “Learn to swim!” the little girl responded. The Wagners were thrilled that their water safety presentation made a lasting impression.

"If we can prevent one child from drowning, we've done our job," said Bill.

“Bill and Jamie Wagner have done a superb job and have developed an upbeat program using water safety based songs, Bobber costume and their own enthusiasm,” said Arthur Ruebenson, park ranger at the St. Lucie Lock and Dam. “All program evaluation forms from the schools rate them very highly. They have reached 8,396 school students in 20 schools already this year, and in July, will conduct programs in the St. Lucie County libraries.”

“Our volunteers go out to the schools and teach water safety to children from kindergarten to  fifth grade. This year, our volunteers will teach more than 49,000 children about water safety, saving thousands of dollars and staff-hours; but more importantly, saving the lives of our children,” said Phillip Hart, park ranger at W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam, and volunteer and water safety coordinator for Jacksonville District. “These folks are up at five a.m., drive through rush hour traffic, do as many as six presentations in one day at each school, and put hundreds of miles on their personal vehicles to ensure the children of South Florida are safe in and around the water.”

Dan and Karen Silverwood volunteered at Ortona Lock and Dam in 2009 and have returned to volunteer at W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam every year since. As seasoned veterans, they teach students and train new volunteers as well.

During one of their presentations, the Silverwoods received the ultimate reward. A little girl came up and said, “Mr. Silverwood, after you taught us how to save someone with a plastic jug with a screw top and a rope last year, I told my dad about it and we made a couple of them and put them on the fence by the pool. We had a family reunion, and no one realized that my cousin, who couldn’t swim, had gotten into the pool. When I saw him, I remembered what you taught me: ‘Throw, don’t go!’ I held onto the rope and threw the jug. I pulled him to safety and saved his life!”

“That was a real miracle,” said Karen Silverwood, who taught elementary school for 33 years in Ohio. “There is so much water everywhere in Florida; not just in pools, beaches and rivers, but also canals and retention ponds. Our job is so important. We teach water safety to the kids, and they teach it to their families. We love our job.”

Julie Begley and Yvonne “Bis” Bisbee recently retired after serving in the U.S. Air Force for many years. Begley was a military training instructor for 23 years before retiring in 2013. Bisbee, a military analyst, retired in 1999 after 20 years of service and worked as an analyst in the private sector for 10 years. This year, they were both first-time water safety volunteers at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam near Alva on the Caloosahatchee River.

Begley and Bisbee lived at W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam for five and a half months, working as water safety volunteers in local schools during the school year. Now, they are taking what they learned at W.P. Franklin to the Ice Harbor Lock and Dam in the Corps’ Walla Walla District in Washington, where they plan to revive the water safety program on site.

“We’re really excited about taking [what] we’ve learned this year at W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam up to Ice Harbor, to get their water safety program back up and running. Of course, we have to adapt the program to include cold water safety also,” said Bisbee. “It’s near the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, so there’s a lot of water nearby, and it’s of paramount importance to teach people about water safety. This time of year, the campgrounds and beaches are full of kids and families. We want to use what we learned to keep everybody safe.”

Jacksonville District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers USACE Volunteers water safety