The yellow rubber duck.
The classic vinyl toy conjures images of Sesame Street and innocent, fun water play. That’s exactly why the iconic childhood symbol serves as mascot for the Float Like a Duck public safety program.
“We wanted to make sure people are aware of the dos and don’ts of the swimming pool, the lake — even the bathtub,” explains Joe Vassallo, owner of Paragon Pools in Las Vegas and co-founder of the campaign.“We determined that the best way to do this and deliver our message was to do something fun rather than something ominous.”
This year marks the 15th anniversary of Float Like a Duck, an initiative co-launched by Vassallo and his firm’s publicist and philanthropist Mary Vail. Founded in 2003, Float Like a Duck is a community service initiative focused on the importance of water safety. The program began as a free, family-friendly annual summer kick-off event at the Bill and Lillie Heinrich YMCA in Las Vegas.
Right away, the feedback was positive. “We realized very shortly on that it was a very successful way to promote water safety, and a lot of people felt the same way,” Vassallo says.
Float Like a Duck has since evolved into a multifaceted award-winning endeavor encompassing a variety of outreach efforts, including community events throughout the year at schools, churches, hospitals, libraries and parades. The program also offers hands-on-safety training events, learn-to-swim (or float) classes, multiple video series in English and Spanish, handouts and exhibits.
The “spokesperson,” Duckie the Mascot, is present at every event and engages young and old in an effort to celebrate the fun aspects of learning to swim while informing attendees of the importance of taking safety measures.
“The kids absolutely love Duckie the Mascot,” Vassallo says. “They think they are at Disneyland.”
Vail and Vassallo, who have an equal passion for water activities and promoting water safety, established the program in response to the high number of drowning incidents in southern Nevada in the late 90s and early 2000s. Very discouraged by media coverage of the deaths, they wanted to make an impact.
“As a PR professional, crafting sustainable programs is a critical role I undertake for my clients,” Vail says. “I take the time to research the problem or social issue and consider how to assist or solve it.”
Vassallo credits Vail for serving as the backbone of Float Like a Duck, noting that she handles 80% of the initiative. Vail accepts credit to a degree, but says she couldn’t have done it without the support of Vassallo, who invests his time and money into the initiative.
Most recently, Float Like a Duck released the “Learning to Swim Led Me to …” PSA video series, which showcases more than a dozen individuals and organizations from the Las Vegas area. In the clips, participants share how learning to swim helped them pursue their paths to personal growth and accomplishments in sports, academics, and other fields.
“We have been very successful in connecting with the community,” Vail says. “We are very proud of the program.”
Much like the mascot, Float Like a Duck’s message is rudimentary in nature. It emphasizes the ABCDs of water safety: Adult supervision, Barriers, Classes and Devices. Although the program carries a straightforward message, there is nothing easy about developing, orchestrating, and growing something that has such a broad appeal and significance within the community.
“For Float Like A Duck and the topic of water safety, there will always be a need to reinforce the ABCD’s of water safety and remind families to be attentive around all water environments,” Vail says. “It takes a lot of time and resources to facilitate it every year.”
Spreading the message
Since its inception, Float Like a Duck has grown and partnered with a number of organizations and pool and spa industry members who have helped to broaden the effort, including the YMCA, the American Red Cross, Zodiac, Paramount Pool and Spa Systems, Pebble Tec and Carecraft, which funds the popular coloring book handed out at events.
The program is neither a charity nor a non-profit organization, Vail explains, noting that they do not take donations other than from their corporate sponsors. Rather, everyone from the videographer and graphic designer to whoever plays Duckie for the day (the beloved costume has been worn by everyone, including Vassallo), dedicates their own time to the cause.
Float Like a Duck may be proprietary to Paragon Pools, but Vail and Vassallo encourage others to develop something similar yet specific to their area and needs. Vail recommends taking a first step by reaching out to local law enforcement or other agencies to see if they would support such an initiative.
“Whether they bring a firetruck or a police officer brings a badge, they want to participate,” Vail says. “They want to educate the community and ... they are eager to partner, and as long as it’s a legitimate organization that is really trying to promote safety.”
Several organizations from as far away as Alaska, Louisiana and Ohio have reached out to Vail and Vassallo, seeking advice about how to deliver a similar positive message in their own communities. In turn, Vassallo and Vail have supplied literature, advice and even personalized Float Like a Duck PSAs to assist with these efforts.
“If you get out there and you put your heart and soul into doing it, you will find others will want to help you,” Vassallo says. “It’s just matter of making that commitment.”
Since the inception of Float Like a Duck, drowning incidents have decreased in southern Nevada, no doubt due in part to the house that Duckie built.
Despite such a successful endeavor, Vassallo says he never really gave the program’s true impact much thought until recently, when a friend reached out to him after his granddaughter attended a Float Like a Duck event.
“He called me and said, ‘Thank you for what you are doing,’” Vassallo recalls. “Then he asked, ‘Do you realize how many lives you are probably saving because of this program you have started?’
“That touched me. How do you quantify that? How many lives have I saved? If it was at least one, it would have all been worth it.”