Campus News

World Drowning Prevention Day: USC Faculty hosts Splash Camp

Bokie Muigai August 21, 2023
people play a game with a ball in the water

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake.

While it greatly contributes to the blue economy of the East African region, it is also the site of thousands of drownings each year.

July 25 is World Drowning Prevention Day. This year, for the second time, Heather Wipfli, PhD, Director of the Undergraduate Programs, commemorated the day on the banks of Lake Victoria, where she provided the Keynote Address at Uganda’s national World Drowning Prevention Day event.

Swim Safe demonstrates water rescue. Photo by GoVisuals courtesy Heather Wipfli, PhD and USC GRIT Lab.

“This year we co-hosted the event with the Ministry of Water and Environment, along with the Ministry of Health, and other non-profit organizations,” she divulges. The day also featured a brass band parade, a demonstration water polo game between USA youth water polo players and the Ugandan Swimming Federation team, water rescue demonstrations by Swim Safe Uganda, and special guests and popular dancing troupe seen on Britian’s Got Talent, The Ghetto Kids. “The Ghetto Kids not only performed at the event, but attended our learn-to-swim camp in the days leading up to the event and were recognized at the event as official water safety ambassadors,” she explains.

Wipfli has been working in Uganda on adolescent health, air pollution, and tobacco control since 2011. “As long as I have been working in Uganda, I have heard terrible stories of drowning,” she expresses. “My eldest son is a Division I diver, and my middle son is a serious water polo player, so we spend a lot of time around water. Inspired by the learn-to-swim programs at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center, we started thinking about how we could promote water safety and drowning prevention in Uganda,” she discloses. Wipfli’s three children, who have traveled with her to Uganda numerous times have been actively involved in her global health activities and together they founded a non-profit organization, Energy In Action, in 2014. It was shortly after discussing their shared interest in preventing drowning that they reached out to Swim Safe Uganda, the largest nonprofit organization focused on drowning prevention in the country, and together in 2020 they launched a collaborative on drowning prevention including the Ministries of Water and Environment and Health; Ugandan Swim Federation; and Makerere University among others.

Pictured: Heather Wipfli, PhD. Photo by GoVisuals courtesy Heather Wipfli, PhD and USC GRIT Lab.

In addition to the annual World Drowning Prevention Day event, their efforts resulted in Splash Camp, an annual week-long program that offers workshops to over 100 children raising awareness on water hazards and teaching essential drowning prevention skills. The camp includes swimming classes and the children learn about first aid, Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and water rescue. The children are also taught the importance of signage, adequate fencing, and the need for community lifeguards. “The kids start with no swimming skills, but at the end, many can swim across the pool. Through Energy In Action, we bring along several USA youth water polo players to assist with the camp and who teach the kids “Introduction to Water Polo,” and facilitate mini games through which the kids have a lot of fun,” she shares.

The Ghetto Kids perform. Photo by GoVisuals courtesy Heather Wipfli, PhD and USC GRIT Lab.

Students in Wipfli’s Global Research, Implementation, and Training (GRIT) Lab support the drowning prevention programming in multiple ways. “Together with colleagues at Makerere university, they assist in developing and delivering the curriculum for Splash Camp that goes beyond water safety and includes additional workshops on sanitation and hygiene, mental health, and gender empowerment”, she reports. “They carry out needed research on the risk factors related to drowning throughout the country.” This past year, GRIT Lab students presented the results of their research on drowning in lakeside communities in Uganda at international academic conferences and are in the process of implementing another photovoice research project in collaboration with Makerere University. All these activities are implemented on the heels of the World Health Assembly’s first ever resolution on drowning prevention that was passed earlier this year. These initiatives aim to highlight the profound impact of drowning in waterside communities and raise awareness on the far-reaching effects of prevention initiatives.