WO Interact works to save lives



The view of sun setting over the horizon at the Holland State Park

Nathan Riley and Tyler Berens

Tragedy struck while Jr. Will Niziolek enjoyed his day at the beach. Suddenly swept 100 yards out into the deep blue water by a rip current, eight people struggled to fight the pull with only an innertube to support them. Kicking and paddling, the swimmers screamed for help as the beach goers looked on, helpless. Five minutes of chaos passed until a lifesaver finally reached the swimmers. The lifeguard helped six of the swimmers onto his raft; saving six while two unfortunately drowned.
Niziolek now recognizes the dangers of Holland’s beaches. “Many people don’t care and still go into the water even though they may not be strong swimmers. This shows their carelessness by not worrying and putting their life in danger. We need somebody to take action to stop these drownings,” Niziolek said.
Preventing any more of these incidents has become a priority for West Ottawa’s Rotary Interact Club through the Holland Safe Water Initiative. Through fundraising and increasing awareness of drownings, WO Interact hopes to make Holland’s beaches safer.
Founded in the fall of 2022, WO Interact seeks to improve the community through service, fellowship, leadership, and diversity. Previously, the club has raised awareness for Polio but now has shifted the focus to the Holland Safe Water Initiative. To achieve safer beaches, the initiative aims to purchase new lifesaving equipment that decreases response time to a potential drowning.
Sr. Joey Skerbeck serves as the Director of Communications for the club. “This project is incredibly important to our community because there have been students from our own school who have passed from drowning,” Skerbeck said.
Club President Sr. Raighen Ly also understands the magnitude of the project. “We want to stop seeing people in the news for the wrong reason. Holland State Park is a place we all love to go for fun, but when sirens show up, it’s not all that fun anymore. We’ve lost West Ottawa students to unsafe water practices before. We want to protect our students,” Ly said. The connection between the West Ottawa community and WO Interact drives the club to implement positive change in a place students value.
Determined to keep West Ottawa students safe at the beach, WO Interact hopes to purchase drones that deploy flotation devices in emergency situations. “The point of these devices is to both prevent someone from risking their safety to attempt to save someone and to improve response time,” Ly said. These drones can drop a flotation device to a struggling swimmer.
Park Township Fire Chief Scott Gamby used a private drone to help save a West Ottawa student. “We had a success story of using a private drone a few years ago to rescue a WO student from an iceberg in Lake Michigan. Without that drone I don’t believe we would have found her in time and that story would have ended up as a tragic incident,” Gamby said.
To make the purchase of the drones possible, WO Interact must launch fundraising. The club hopes to raise $30,000 through T-shirt sales and a baked goods sale. These sales not only raise money but also increase awareness in the community of the club’s goals.
Through fundraising, WO Interact “hopes to raise awareness to the public, but mainly have an influence on students. We can always do a million things to prevent someone from drowning, but nothing is going to speak louder or make any sort of impulse if we’re not getting this understanding of water safety into kids’ heads,” Ly said.
Once the Park Township Fire Department receives the drones, their marine division would operate the drones. The department would utilize the drones alongside jet skis and boats to make Holland’s beaches safer.
The drones would increase the safety of the beaches, but Gamby recognizes no solution is perfect. “The biggest concern we have as a department is that we don’t grow too big too fast. Jet skis and boats take a lot of hours for training and certifications and I want to make sure my staff can meet the challenge,” Gamby said. Operating as a part-time department, the marine division lacks the hours required to adequately train staff.
The Moosonee Volunteer Fire Department in Moosonee, Ontario has already deployed their drone over 12 times, including two life saving missions. Chief Scott Grant explained that the drone camera gives the team the ability to plan a few steps ahead and determine whether they should deploy personnel or the flotation device. The Park Township Fire Department hopes to replicate the success of the department in Moosonee.
WO Interact plans to keep serving communities after the Holland Safe Water Initiative. “After serving our needs in Holland, our future aspirations include providing water safety to impoverished communities in Pago Pago,” Skerbeck said.
Through the Safe Water Initiative, WO Interact hopes to prevent scenes experienced by Niziolek last summer.