Paulina Alfasi always knew she would join Long Beach’s Junior Lifeguard Program.
Her family, like many others in Long Beach, has a history with the ocean. Her older brother Nikolai is in his second year on the lifeguard patrol, and her mother, Kelly, is a former lifeguard/instructor for the junior program.
“Growing up around water and on the beach, they had to swim,” Kelly says. “They’ve been swimming before they could even walk.”
While many other kids headed to summer camps this year, Paulina is among another group of Long Beach youngsters who geared up for a different type of experience—one that teaches them the skills and dedication needed to be Long Beach Junior Lifeguard. You can’t miss them, sporting iconic blue shirts, scattering across National Boulevard beach twice a week through July and August, learning techniques on the sand, jumping into the water, sharing a laugh with their friends.
In one group, instructors guide the kids through a mock rescue: a volunteer goes deep into the water, while another student snags a rescue board and runs into the ocean to drag them out. Just several yards down the ocean, another group, some wearing neon green head caps, are floating in the water.
Director of the junior lifeguard program, DJ Volosevich, and his wife, Lynn, have been running it for the last eight years. DJ was also a member of the very first class in 1988 when there were only 11 participants. Now, in 2021, the instructors welcomed over 185 kids to the program, including 15-year-old Paulina Alfasi, who’s in her fifth and final year.
“I think it’s really important because [the program] trains me on how to be a lifeguard, so I’m not scared on my first day as a lifeguard,” Paulina says. “The instructors teach how to be lifeguards and tell us about their past experiences as well.”
Kids are taught about various aspects of beach and water safety, such as ocean swimming, use of rescue boards, lifesaving skills, rescue techniques and more. They’re taught about getting comfortable in the ocean, and the dangers in the water, including riptides.
“For instance, if they talk about a rip [current] and how to spot a rip, the instructors will take them one by one into the rip so they can experience what it’s like to be in the rip and how to get out,” DJ explains.
Chief Lifeguard Paul Gillespie, who mans a team of 149 lifeguards, believes the program—which caters to kids between the ages of 10 to 15, and has produced more than 90% of the lifeguards on the force today — is vital for the patrol.
“[As] the old saying goes, ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’—and we don’t fail here,” Gillespie says. In the last 14 years, not a single life has been lost while patrol lifeguards are on duty, he says.
When the Junior Lifeguard Program wraps up, trainees are given the chance to go to the USLA National Lifeguard Championships in South Padre Island, Texas (held August 4 this year). The competition is geared towards the senior members, but it also gives the junior lifeguards a chance to compete, and instructors here in Long Beach have the championships in mind throughout the training season. Though the junior competition isn’t scored, activities are often crafted to incorporate training for the competition.
“It’s one of those situations where the kids are playing, but they don’t realize there’s an end result,” Lynn Volosevich says. “It’s fun and it’s competitive, but it’s really preparing them inevitably to be ocean lifeguards.”
Though the program only runs through the summer, the lessons taught are instilled for a lifetime. For some, like Megan Sofield, an instructor and alumnus of the program, believe the program is in good hands.
“A major goal of everyone’s life is to leave what you go through better than how you found it,” Sofield says. “I think the work that DJ, and everyone involved in organizing this junior lifeguard program, is doing is just that. And it’s allowing us to create a bright future for the patrol.”