Future heroes: Destin Junior Lifeguard program trains tomorrow's leaders

Annie Blanks
The Destin Log
Justin Kazek “wraps the can,” a rescue tech-nique involving a floatation device, as part of a mock rescue exercise.

Some kids spend their summers vacationing, playing video games or going away to summer camp. Others spend theirs learning how to save lives.

The 118 kids enrolled in the Destin Junior Lifeguard program this summer are part of the latter group. Every Monday through Thursday morning for eight weeks, they gather at Henderson Beach State Park to learn swim rescue techniques, beach safety tips and other information crucial to being a future lifeguard, or just a well-informed beachgoer.

View photos of the Jr. Lifeguards >>

Destin Beach Safety Chief Joe D’Agostino founded the program 10 years ago after seeing a need for education among locals about beach safety and water conditions. His first camp had around 40 kids; the past few years it’s averaged around 120.

“The community has embraced it,” D’Agostino said. “I’m seeing a change in the attitudes from locals toward the beach in that certainly they need to respect the conditions, but also they understand how to handle certain situations.”

Tom Miller, lead instructor of the junior lifeguard program, said the purpose of the camp is twofold.

Watch video of the Jr. Lifeguards here >>

“First, we want to educate the kids on the difference between swimming in the Gulf and swimming in pools or lakes,” he said. “Second, we want to foster a group of kids that would be interested in becoming actual beach lifeguards someday.”

He said several kids who came up through the junior lifeguard program have grown up to become lifeguards.

Peter Masone, who is now an instructor, is one of those success stories.

“In third grade (this program) taught me how to swim really well,” Masone said. “Now I get to be at the beach every day and pass on what I learn to these younger kids. It’s really great.”

In addition to teaching kids lifesaving techniques, the program brings in several outside organizations to give kids well-rounded knowledge of beach safety. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the weather squadron at Eglin and Emerald Coast Scuba are just a few of the organizations who have participated in this year’s camp.

On Tuesday morning, Doe Schuster, a longtime volunteer with Henderson Beach State Park, brought touch pools filled with various animals and materials including barnacles, hermit crabs and seashells for the kids to touch and interact with.

“We just want to familiarize them with things that might wash up on the beaches,” she said.

The camp also offers up to 10 scholarships each year, and gives selected rising 9th and 10th graders the chance to earn one full academic credit.

Destin Junior Lifeguards is a 501(c)(3) organization, and accepts kids ages 8 to 17.