YMCA aims to combat lifeguard shortage with new class at BHS

Brainerd High School and the Brainerd Family YMCA are partnering to offer a lifeguard class this semester and allow students to become certified through the American Red Cross.

Students and teacher sit near pool
YMCA Aquatic Director Megan Balach poses Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2023, with Brainerd High School students Emerald Scearcy (left), Josie Naillon, Izzy Hill-White and Kendall Lindberg, who are taking a lifeguard class this semester.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — As the lakes area anticipates dangerously cold wind chills this week, swimming might be far from most people’s minds.

But staff at the Brainerd Family YMCA are already working to equip pools and beaches with certified lifeguards once the warm weather appears. The organization is teaming up with Brainerd High School to offer a lifeguard class this semester, during which students will learn skills making them eligible to become certified lifeguards through the American Red Cross.

“This is a life skill, and it is relevant to their future,” BHS Principal Andrea Rusk said Wednesday, Feb. 1.

Not only is the class a valuable skill for the students — who Rusk said will likely use what they learn whether they become certified lifeguards or not — but YMCA staffers are hoping the class will help combat the lifeguard shortage plaguing their organization and other aquatic facilities for years.

“There’s a nationwide shortage of lifeguards, and we’re always struggling to fill those types of vacancies at the YMCA,” CEO Shane Riffle said. “... We’ve often talked about the opportunity to run a lifeguard course at the high school and tossed that around. And as we’ve been exploring other opportunities to partner with the school district, Andrea and I started talking in more detail and agreed that it was an idea worth pursuing.”


Four students enrolled in this semester’s first lifeguard class, taught in the high school’s new aquatic center by YMCA Aquatics Director Megan Balach. Students will receive high school credits for the class and be able to take the Red Cross’ lifeguard certification test at the end of the semester.

Students learn water rescue, CPR, first aid and a host of other skills they would need to sit in the lifeguard chair. But because the semester offers more time than needed for all the certification requirements, Balach and Riffle plan to add in some other elements as well.

“One of our goals is to also provide the opportunity to teach swim lessons and just other aquatic safety functions that might be applicable in a position at the Y or another pool,” Riffle said. “Obviously we’d like them all to work at the Y, but there are other places where lifeguards are needed, and everybody’s feeling the pinch.”

A woman at the front counter of the Brainerd Family YMCA welcomes members Tuesday, Feb. 5. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
A woman at the front court of the Brainerd Family YMCA welcomes members.
Dispatch file photo

Part of the reason for the shortage, Riffle and Balach said, is how much stricter the safety and training standards have become throughout the years, paired with what is typically considered entry-level pay. Balach added there can also be some stigma around the job, which is often thought of as a part-time job.

“But yet, we still need those people that can work at 10 o’clock in the morning and aren’t in class,” Balach said.

While Riffle said restaurant jobs might be more appealing to high school students because of higher pay, sophomore Kendall Lindberg said she would rather have a summer job where she can be outside. She also took the school’s aquatics course last semester and realized she loved being in the pool every day.

The lifeguard class felt like a natural choice for freshman Izzy Hill-White, who grew up on a lake. Sophomore Emerald Scearcy and freshman swim team member Josie Naillon said lifeguarding felt like a valuable skill to learn.

“I think it’s just kind of a skill you have to acquire in this state if you live here,” Scearcy said.


Many Minnesotans — especially Brainerd area residents — aren’t strangers to lake swimming, but Riffle noted the importance of learning lifeguarding and other water safety skills, as drowning is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the leading cause of death for children in general and for children ages 1-4. It’s the second most common cause of death for kids ages 5-14, behind motor vehicle crashes.

The CDC reported an average of about 4,000 drowning deaths per year in the U.S. from 2011-20, which amounts to about 11 per day. During the same time period, there were about 8,000 nonfatal drownings, or about 22 per day.

For every child who dies from drowning, another seven receive emergency care for nonfatal drowning, the CDC reported. Nearly 40% of drownings treated in emergency departments require hospitalization or further care, and nonfatal drowning injuries can cause brain damage or long-term disability, according to the CDC.

“Even if you don’t become a lifeguard, you’re going to use it because you’re going to be around water, likely, and you can be that person and support,” Rusk said to the students in Wednesday’s class.

Rusk said she is grateful for the partnership with the YMCA for this class and hopes to continue growing it in the future.

Balach shares that goal.

Brainerd High School Aquatics Center Dedication and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony.
Brainerd High School Aquatics Center Dedication and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“I would love nothing more than for it to just continue and be every semester,” Balach said. “... I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t believe that everyone should be safe — not just in the water, but around it. And the more people that we can get through, even if they don’t lifeguard now, this is a skill that when students go off to college, they will probably be able to walk into their college rec department and instantaneously get a job on campus.”


Lifeguard certification must be renewed every two years, but Balach said the renewal process requires less time than first-time certification.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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