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Oregon Town Pushes Swim Lessons After Tragic Family Drowning

Image: A memorial for members of the Garcia-Ixtacua who died at Henry Hagg Lake, a reservoir in Gaston, Ore.

A memorial for members of the Garcia-Ixtacua who died at Henry Hagg Lake, a reservoir in Gaston, Ore. Gisele Lamarre / for NBC News

More than 200 mourners filled the pews of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Hillsboro, Oregon, Friday for a traditional Mass in Spanish honoring the lives of the four family members who drowned in Henry Hagg Lake last week.

This family's tragedy is only the most recent one highlighting some troubling nationwide statistics: 10 people drown each day in the United States, according to USA Swimming Foundation, the national governing body for the sport of swimming. And while about 60 percent of Latino children cannot swim, that figure is nearly 70 percent for African-American kids. That compares to about 40 percent for white children who don't know how to swim, according to the organization.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children between the age of 5 and 14 also drown at a rate nearly three times higher than white kids in that age group.

Neighborhood In 'Shock' After Drowning Deaths 1:48

In Oregon, mourners took Holy Communion in front of the three coffins, which held the four family members: Jova Ixtacua, 42, her daughter, Gabriela Garcia, 25, her son, Michael Garcia, 13, and her 3-year-old grandson, Jeremy Scholl.

None of them knew how to swim, nor was any of them wearing a flotation device on Aug. 25, when police believe they all drowned trying to save one of the others. A medical examiner ruled all four deaths accidental.

If the parent can't swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim, said Scott Leightman, communications director for USA Swimming. "There’s a culture [in those households] of it not necessarily being seen as important,” he said.

Image: A sign posted at Henry Hagg Lake in Gaston, Ore., offering visitors the option of borrowing a life jacket.
A sign posted at Henry Hagg Lake in Gaston, Ore., offering visitors the option of borrowing a life jacket. Gisele Lamarre / for NBC News

Leightman said USA Swimming Foundation's nationwide program Make a Splash, which launched in 2009 and often partners with Olympic medalists, is one of the initiatives hoping to equip kids with critical skills such as learning how to swim and how to float. The program runs year-round and offers free or low-cost classes thanks to the foundation's partners, Leightman said.

In the Oregon community that lost four of its members last week, several county agencies got together following the tragic drowning to discuss improving public water safety — including reaching out to the Latino community.

"You're going to see change happen. The community is coming together to find better ways to prevent this."

Gabriela would often take her son, Jeremy, to the lake, which is just a 25-minute drive from the house where the family has lived for 15 years, since moving there from Mexico. But the bottom of the Henry Hagg Lake is uneven and sudden drop-offs change location from year to year. A kiosk providing free life vests is placed near the lakeside, but authorities agree they need to increase the signage as part of a move to improve their outreach to the Latino community.

In the neighboring city of Forest Grove, Tom Gamble, director of parks and recreation, said he has seen more Latino kids taking swim lessons this year than in any year in the past.

Paula Rose, aquatic manager at the Shute Park Aquatic & Recreation Center in Hillsboro, where the Garcias lived, said her facility will offer family swim lessons and financial assistance in the coming winter sessions. They have already been reaching out to the Latino community, she said.

About a quarter of Hillsboro's population of 95,000 is Latino, according to U.S. Census data, while Latinos make up just 11 percent of Oregon's population statewide.

"If we look at this family as an example, they would have really benefited from swim lessons and general water safety tips," Rose said.

She said she hopes the community will see this tragedy as a teaching moment that swimming lessons save lives.

"You're going to see change happen. The community is coming together to find better ways to prevent this," Rose said.

Image: Gabriela Garcia-Ixtacua and her son Jeremy Scholl drowned in Henry Hagg Lake last week in Hillsboro, Oregon.
Gabriela Garcia-Ixtacua and her son Jeremy Scholl drowned in Henry Hagg Lake last week in Hillsboro, Oregon. Courtesy Garcia-Ixtacua family