Story by Kyle Dunlap
Public Affairs intern
DENISON, Texas - With the spirit of a lifelong educator, retired schoolteacher Pam VanderWeele has shown the reach and impact that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers volunteers can have on communities and people.
As a water safety volunteer at Lake Texoma this summer, VanderWeele visited 17 elementary schools surrounding the lake in Texas and Oklahoma, giving presentations to more than 2,000 students in the third through fifth grades.
“What I developed was about a 45-minute presentation,” VanderWeele said. “We would talk about properly fitting life jackets and stress the reach and throw.”
The 12th largest lake operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Texoma defines the communities that surround it. The Red River-fueled body of water supplies an ample amount of recreational and business opportunities for people throughout northern Texas and southeastern Oklahoma.
VanderWeele acknowledged the importance and relevance of the Corps of Engineers' water safety message in these communities.
“Out of these presentations, there were probably about three times someone would come up and say, ‘We had a student drown a couple of years ago’,” VanderWeele said. “I chose third and fourth grade because they’re just becoming independent. It’s not like they’re a kindergartener where a parent is usually around. So it’s important for them to know what they can do to be safer.”
In addition to her presentations, VanderWeele compiled and donated water safety material to local libraries, creating packets of DVDs and other published materials that the public can use.
“Libraries nowadays are real resources for DVDs and community information,” VanderWeele said. “So that was kind of a good way to do some outreach.”
Shae Harrison, park ranger and volunteer coordinator for Lake Texoma, praised VanderWeele’s work this summer. Harrison acknowledged the great advantage it gives a project to have a volunteer that is willing to do so much outreach.
"We were incredibly fortunate to have Ms. VanderWeele as a volunteer water safety instructor at Lake Texoma,” Harrison said. “Ms. VanderWeele’s service to our project and community is exemplary.”
VanderWeele was drawn to the Corps’ message of water safety after having served as an aquatic director at a YMCA in Wallingford, Conn., for 12 years. This experience, combined with a background in teaching elementary school gave her the desire to help keep people, especially children, safe around the water.
“It only takes one kid to drown,” VanderWeele said, “and it makes you think of all of the families that are affected.”
VanderWeele was very pleased with her experience around the lake this summer and with Lake Texoma’s park rangers.
“This has been very rewarding, and very positive,” VanderWeele said. “I have to compliment the rangers that have been here. They have been very appreciative and supportive. It has been a very good experience.”
VanderWeele plans to continue volunteering for other organizations in the months ahead, and has not ruled out the possibility of a return to the wind-swept waters of Lake Texoma and the communities surrounding it next summer.
“I’ve signed up for Habitat for Humanity in March,” VanderWeele said, “and I might come back here in April.”