Heather Johnson, a 2002 graduate of South Haven High School, is like a number of local residents who don’t venture to Lake Michigan very often during summer months – a time that attracts many visitors to the beaches, even when weather conditions warrant staying out of the water.
“I’m a longtime local. As local people we don’t go to the lake when there’s bad weather,” she said.
Even when drownings have occurred over the years, she still stayed away in the aftermath, not wanting to be among the people going to the lake to see what happened.
But her sentiments changed last year when a 22-year-old man from Novi and a 19-year-old woman from Columbus, Mich. drowned off South Beach, Aug. 8, 2022. The drowning incident followed two previous drownings in July of 2022, when a 33-year-old man from Ohio and 7-year-old child from Texas, drowned off North Beach, while vacationing with other family members at a home, nearby.
“When the 7-year-old boy died, it struck me hard,” Johnson said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”
She did. She and several other South Haven residents have formed South Haven Ambassadors Program and Education (SHAPE), a group dedicated to improving the level of safety at South Haven’s city beaches.
“Last year South Haven was dubbed the ‘deadliest beachtown’ in Michigan. We’d rather have it be known as the town with the safest beaches,” Johnson said.
The group informally began last summer following the four drowning deaths off of North and South beaches. “We started with three volunteers and myself,” Johnson said. “We watched the beaches all day and passed out brochures to educate people about rip currents and the importance of being safe.”
This year, the group is ramping up its efforts for the upcoming summer season and is in the process of forming as a 501c3 non-profit.
“We just want to educate people,” Johnson said.
To that end, the group is in the process of recruiting volunteers to monitor South and North beaches, from May 1 through Oct. 1.
Volunteers will be tasked with watching the water and reporting to South Haven Police or South Haven Area Emergency Services if swimmers become distressed. They also will have bags loaded with safety brochures, stickers and even Popsicles to give to beachgoers in an effort to encourage safety at the lake, whether weather conditions are calm or more blusterous.
“Volunteers will not be required or asked to enter the water,” she said. “We are looking to have volunteers posted on the beaches in shifts to watch the water and report to authorities if anyone becomes in distress.”
Johnson was quick to stress the purpose of the Ambassador Program is not to interfere with people’s enjoyment at the beach, nor beach patrols conducted by South Haven Police or South Haven Area Emergency Services, but rather to stress safety for beach-goers.
“Last year I was in contact with police beach patrols and SHAES and they were very receptive,” she said.
Brandon Hinz, SHAES administrator and fire chief, agreed the volunteers promoting education safety may be helpful to alleviate the possibilities of drowning situations off of South Haven beaches.
“The more education the better, I say,” he said in an interview this past week. “Prevention and education are always the best plays. After noting that our fire prevention programs have been successful, we directed efforts the last few years to our beaches promoting water safety, educating visitors and residents of the hazards.”
Johnson said the Ambassador Program is modeled after a similar one in Milwaukee, Wis., called the Bradford Beach Ambassador Club, formed by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. Johnson talked with Surf Rescue Project co-founder Dave Benjamin and Bobby Pratt, also of the Surf Rescue Project,, who agreed to lead a training program this spring for SHAPE volunteers.
“We need enough volunteers each day for a total of 153 days as we will be out in full force from May 1-Oct. 1 no matter the flag color,” Johnson said, referring to the green, yellow and red flags placed at North and South beaches each summer season to warn swimmers of water conditions, with red indicating swimmers need to stay out of the lake.
While the newly formed group works on completing its paperwork to become a 501c3 non-profit, Johnson said she and other SHAPE members are soliciting financial support, some of which has already come from local businesses that have agreed to pay for the cost of producing insulated bags for volunteers to use when they distribute safety brochures, stickers and Popsicles to beach-goers.
“The Popsicles won’t be given to just anybody. It’s to reward good beach and water safety behavior,” Johnson said.
SHAPE’s ultimate goal is to encourage South Haven city officials to re-institute a lifeguard program at North and South beaches.
“We’re hoping this could be a pilot program for starting a lifeguard program,” Johnson said.
At one time, the city and South Haven Public Schools worked together to sponsor a lifeguard program, but it ceased in the early 2000s due to liability concerns and difficulties in attracting and hiring part-time lifeguards. IN 2021, at the recommendation of an ad hoc committee, South Haven city officials nixed the idea of restarting a lifeguard program, citing the expense – approximately $200,000 annually – and the stepped up efforts by South Haven Police Department, South Haven Area Emergency Services to train staff and purchase water safety equipment to respond to rescue emergencies on Lake Michigan.
“It’s going to be up to the community to change this,” Johnson said regarding drowning deaths that occur off the beaches of South Haven. “In the meantime, without lifeguards, the Ambassadors program is probably the best bet.”
For more information about SHAPE, visit its Facebook site or email email@example.com