By Abbey Videtich, Violence and Injury Prevention
“Everyone has a story about it,” said Ahado Abdi. “Everybody has a story about someone they know drowning.”
Ahado works with Mother Africa, an organization supporting African refugee and immigrant women and families based in Kent. Ahado has her own story of heartbreak: Last year, her 15-year-old brother, Aamiin, drowned in Lake Meridian. “When people think of drowning, they think they’re dead. But my brother isn’t. He is brain dead. He is here, but also not here,” Ahado said. “A lot of these kids in our community don’t know how to swim.”
Stories like Ahado’s are sadly common. Preventable drownings in King County have continued to rise over the past five years, and 29 people lost their lives to drowning in 2021, including 15 in open water. In two-thirds of those open-water drownings, a life jacket may have saved their life.
The trend has hit the Black community especially hard. Black people make up about 6% of King County’s population, but 15% of King County’s drowning deaths over that five-year period. This is the first time Public Health has seen such a wide disparity.
Organizations such as Mother Africa are confronting this problem directly. On April 15, 2022, Mother Africa hosted the first in-person “Child and Youth Life Jacket Giveaway and Water Safety Awareness” event since the pandemic. Almost 200 life jackets were fitted and given away to infants, children, and youth.
With many public pools closed during the pandemic, families have had fewer opportunities to find free or affordable swim classes. At the event, Mother Africa gave out more than 150 swim lessons at the YMCA, provided through donations. Ahado said each gift would cover one-hour swim lessons for at least a month. The turnout was so large that organizers are planning another event.
A cold spring and heavy snowpack mean rivers will run cold and fast, which can be deadly. Lakes will also stay cold longer, according to Tony Gomez, Public Health’s Violence and Injury Prevention Manager. Washington waters are often cold enough to cause cold water shock, even on a hot summer day. Cold water can quickly weaken even the strongest swimmer.
Many members of the community Mother Africa serves are immigrants from warm climates and are unaware of what being in cold water can do to them. “I felt that my brother was a pretty good swimmer, but he did not understand what would happen the deeper he swam [in Lake Meridian],” said Ahado.
After Aamiin’s drowning, his friends started having conversations about what they could do to be safer in and around local waters. Similarly, kids attending the Mother Africa event began to think and talk about water safety.
Ahado said these conversations with kids and parents could have a lasting impact. “If everyone knew what you could do instead of panicking … you know, you’re the friend that calls 9-1-1, you’re the friend that finds an adult even if there isn’t a lifeguard — that can save lives!” Ahado said.
Mother Africa hosted the event in partnership with Public Health’s Violence and Injury Prevention Program, Seattle Children’s, Washington State Parks Boating Program, Kent Police Department, the YMCAs of SeaTac, Auburn, Kent and the King County Sheriff’s Office. Members of each organization donated their time and resources to promote water safety education in the community.
Check out our Water Safety page for info and tips.
Find a free or affordable life jacket from this map
Drowning prevention resources are available through Safe Kids USA
Guidelines on water safety from Seattle Children’s
Originally published May 2, 2022