Have Fun, Save Lives at Junior Guards
Since 1966, Local Teens Have Learned to be Lifeguards
By Bryce Stoepfel
If you haven’t noticed kids in the house, or if Alice Cooper hasn’t reminded you yet, schools out for summer. For parents that can mean expensive day care bills or dread over the evils of idle hands. Or, send them to the beach to be part of the Santa Cruz Junior Guards. For some parents, it’s the best day care out there.
“Parents can drop their kids off and know that they have great instruction and that they’re in a safe environment,” Junior Guards Lieutenant Colin Herric said. “They get in phenomenal shape. There are tons of workouts, and the older kids get certified in CPR and first aid.”
Currently, 1,000 kids, ranging from 6 to 17, are enrolled in Junior Guards. The goal, especially for the youngest kids, is to make them feel safe and comfortable in a beach environment. For the older kids, starting at 12 or 13, learn lifesaving and first aid skills.
“We try to get them in the water every day, and we practice lifesaving skills through games,” Herric said. “They do traditional lifeguard games, like running, swimming, and paddleboard races. We mix fun games in there too.”
Herric, 44, who is also a full-time lifeguard, grew up in the Junior Guards. At four-years-old, he followed his sister Kalia in to the program. It’s now come full circle. Two of his children, Hannah, 8, and Hayden, 7, are in the Junior Guards.
“A lot of my best friends I met in the Junior Guards, and now we have kids the same ages who are in the guards,” Herric said. “It’s been a full circle experience. It’s pretty rad.”
The day begins as the guards, wearing red shorts with a Junior Guards patch, lined up for roll call. After stretching and calisthenics, there’s a workout, which includes distance running, swimming, and paddling on paddleboards. There are plenty of games, like obstacle courses, dodgeball, and can ball, a variation of baseball, where
instead of a bat, they use lifeguard cans, which are rubber tubes formally used for lifesaving operations.
In one game, surf ball a variation of musical chairs, the guards are lined up on the beach, and instructors throw tennis balls into the ocean. The guards race for the tennis balls and the ones who come up empty are out. It’s a fun game, but essential lifesaving skills are learned.
The cream of the crop is the Captain Corps, made up of the older guards, between 15 and 17 years old. During the morning and afternoon, they assist with the younger Junior Guards, and later in the day, they spend their time shadowing full-time lifeguards, or they ride along with members of the fire department.
The 25 volunteer Captain Corp volunteers all have CPR training and have gone through lifeguard instruction. In all, they spend 20 hours a day between their time with the Junior Guards, and their job shadowing.
Job shadowing is appropriate. According to Herric, 90 percent of Santa Cruz’s lifeguards, started in the Junior Guards.
Many Santa Cruz lifeguards, since they became part of the fire department, have been integrated into firefighting, EMT, or paramedic duties. Given the experiences gained in the Junior Guards, career pathways can are opened early.
The Junior Guards have 17 staff members, including several administrative personnel in the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department. The Junior Guards is run and administered by the Parks and Recreation Department, but the Santa Cruz Fire Department employs Santa Cruz lifeguards.
Becoming a Santa Cruz lifeguard is no easy feat, and new hires must be in fantastic shape. One of the tests is a 200-yard run, followed by a 1000-meter swim, finished with another 200-yard run, under 20 minutes.
Monday through Friday from June 18 to August 17, there are two sessions a day, 9 am to noon and 1 pm to 4 pm. Some of the most dedicated guards attend both sessions.
The Santa Cruz Junior Guards started in 1964 when Santa Cruz County Lifeguard Supervisor Al Mitchell was at Huntington Beach. There he noticed youth on the beach wearing red shorts doing military-like exercises. From there, Santa Cruz joined the United States Lifesaving Association, and in 1966 the Santa Cruz Junior Lifeguard program was born.
The program brings in significant money for the Parks and Recreation Department, approximately $200,000 according to Recreation Supervisor
Jill Bates. For residents of Santa Cruz, there is a $250 per kid to be enrolled, and for out-of-towners, it’s $325.
Aside from the Santa Cruz Junior Guards, Capitola, and the State of California also run Junior Guards programs. There’s a friendly rivalry between the programs.
“There are tons of kids who go to school together who are in different programs, so they like to compete against each other,” Herric said.
The guards are literally surrounded by lifeguards. The Junior Guards double the typical ratio of one lifeguard for every 15 kids aged six to 11-years-old. The Captains Corp, who are not included in the ratio,
also serve as additional eyes and ears.
The program is centered on Cowell Beach downtown, but Capitola and Aptos have their own programs. Search Junior Guards in each city to register or call (831) 420-6248 for Santa Cruz information.