Mt. Hood swim instructors visit Maldives to help raise awareness of island habitat and protect the ocean

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: CAT VINTON PHOTOGRAPHY - Students stretch on the shore of Kunfunadhoo Island, where the Maldivian resort Soneva Fushi is located, before swim lessons.

Longtime Mt. Hood Aquatic Center instructors Patti and Jamie Killgore had barely heard of the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean.

When a friend approached the mother-daughter duo about teaching Maldivian children to swim, the two dove at the opportunity.

Their 18-day volunteer trip concluded June 6, a collaboration among the Maldivian resort Soneva Fushi on Kunfunadhoo Island and the Slow Life Foundation.

The trip was not only about teaching kids to swim in the gorgeous turquoise waters surrounding the resort, but creating awareness about the island habitat and protecting the ocean.

“When they can see what’s under the water — the fish and coral — ultimately they value that and take better care of their environment,” Jamie said.

Maldivian culture is a fascinating blend of strict Muslim culture and decadent tourism, as Tim Killgore, Patti’s husband and Jamie’s father, described.

Western culture and tourism have strongly influenced the traditional fishing-based islands, littering the shorelines with plastics and other non-biodegradable materials.

The Killgores said life changed too quickly on the islands.

Whereas when Maldivian people chuck their coconut husks out into the water, if they chuck a plastic water bottle, it’s there forever. Academics and urbanization have taken precedence over learning to swim for the youngest generation.

Enter the Soneva Learn-To-Swim program.

“It’s the first step in a bigger goal of environmental protection,” Federica Siena, a marine biologist at Soneva Fushi, said in a blog post. “Giving lectures and presentations wouldn’t work — the kids need to have a passion and start loving the sea.”

Along with teaching a group of 48 third-graders, the Killgores and other instructors expanded their lessons to 17 mothers.

Many of the mothers, who wore long dresses with pants and headscarves, learned to swim as girls, but stopped at a certain age because of modesty issues that make wet clothing culturally unacceptable.

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: CAT VINTON PHOTOGRAPHY - Daughter and mother Jamie and Patti Killgore, longtime Mt. Hood Aqautic Center instructors, ventured to the Maldive Islands to teach swim lessons earlier this summer.

“For them to take time out of their day to come to swimming lessons was not only a risk, but a sacrifice,” Jamie said. “They’re my new heroes. They felt honored we came there to teach lessons, but it was such an honor for us to teach them.”

The Killgores wore similar clothing into the water in order to experience how it felt for the women. In a blog post, Jamie commented on how in awe she was of the women’s strength, wearing goggles over a head scarf and having their leg movements restricted.

Patti said the biggest challenge of teaching in the Maldives was the tides, currents, waves and corral that could shred the bottoms of their feet.

In the states, swim lessons typically last about 30 minutes. Some days the Killgores taught 90-minute lessons in the warm Indian Ocean.

“You don’t have the confines of a pool, which gives you a lot of security,” Patti said. “The heat was super intense and felt like 100 percent humidity. It was a cold night if we had to use the sheet.”

By the end of lessons, children were thrilled to jump off the jetty into water over their heads and swim to their instructors. Some even tried snorkeling.

Patti and Jamie said they felt they were always welcomed, treated with kindness and incredible generosity.

In a community that was not overly demonstrative with affection, the Killgores were receiving hugs by the end of their trip and felt a strong connection to the women and children they taught.

The women even treated teachers to a feast of potluck dishes and a official presentation with certificates of appreciation.

“We were dumbstruck by the resort food, but it didn’t even compare to this meal that was given in love and gratitude,” Jamie said.

“In water you build trust,” Patti added. “Dependency.”

The Killgores come from a swimming family, with Patti who swam masters and helped launch the home school swim program at Mt. Hood Aquatic Center.

Jamie lifeguarded and taught lessons through college, working part time before she became a groundskeeper at Good Shepherd Church in Boring.

Already, the Killgores are planning a return volunteer trip to the Maldives in 2015 and a possible trip to Thailand as early as October 2014 through a connection with the Maldivian resort.

“(The trip) made the world smaller for me,” Jamie said. We may have preconceived notions of other cultures but perhaps the water itself is an equalizer wherever you may be. ...We have more in common around the world than not, and I find that very refreshing.”

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: CAT VINTON PHOTOGRAPHY - Sponsoring organizations of the learn-to-swim program hope that by teaching Maldivian children to swim, they can help preserve the island habitat and protect the ocean.

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