There’s an old saw that when someone saves your life, you’re bound to them for the rest of yours. For Catherine Barry, it was less someone, than something.

Programming for the Ages

In working to craft one of the most extensive changes to Red Cross’ learn to swim and water safety instructor training, Catherine Barry and her team were told to institute changes that would appeal to various age groups. And the Red Cross responded.

For the young, the old method of sitting in a classroom to learn water safety instruction was no longer appealing in a gaming digital world. So Barry worked with a producer to create a water safety instructor training “gaming tool.” It was a hit not just with water safety instructors, who have been shown to retain more knowledge from using the tool, but also outside groups that took notice of its innovation. In fact, the tool won two gold medals for Best Custom Content and Best Use of Games/Simulations from the Brandon Hall Group.

“It was kind of cool,” Barry says. “But I don’t care about the awards. What’s more important to me is that they’re learning and they’re liking it. And we got it right.”

For the less digital set, Barry introduced adult learn to swim training and an acknowledgement that retirees can also be water safety instructors. “Our swim lessons reach 2.5 million people each year,” she says. “Many of those are adults and they’re coming back to the water, some for the first time.”

For those first-time adult swimmers, Barry sat down with a group of experts to tailor typical swim lessons for adults. “Instructors no longer have to adapt courses for children to adults,” she says.

Her brush with death happened when she was 18 and surfing with a friend. She was an experienced American Red Cross trained lifeguard and former competitive swimmer. But when she was knocked out by the surfboard, the only thing that saved her was her friend — and his training. “Had he not been with me, I would have died,” Barry says. “It all begins with learn to swim.”

So when the American Red Cross called her decades later, seeking help with a controversy over training and pricing changes, she didn’t hesitate.

That was five years ago, and Barry now serves as the group’s national director of aquatics product development. “I didn’t expect to be here that long, but water stays in your veins,” she says.

In her tenure, Barry hasn’t just quelled the controversy she was hired to address, she’s also led one of the largest changes to Red Cross learn-to-swim and water safety instructor training in the group’s 102-year history. For Barry, who had experience with AT&T in sales and product development, that started with a simple approach: listening. “We’ve got to understand who the client is, and what they’re looking to do,” she says. “We can’t fix everything, but we can make good decisions based on what they tell us.”

Based on input received, the team formulated programs targeted to different age groups. Barry also formed new alliances with water safety groups such as United States Lifesaving Association and the National Swimming Pool Foundation. She led development of apps that help people remain safe in water and track swim lesson development. She created the Basic Swim Instructor, a program teaching basic self-preservation skills.

Additionally, she embarks on perhaps her biggest task yet: Releasing updates to 31 courses in the water safety instructor suite, which incorporate Emergency Cardiovascular Care changes and as well as changes in WSI protocols.

“You have to think about what you’re trying to do: Help people stay safer in, near and around the water.”