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Student starts nonprofit organization to save lives with swimming lessons

Published August 7, 2014

New NDSU graduate Jonathon McCarthy wants to save children’s lives with swimming lessons.

His idea—giving access to swimming lessons in areas around the world with high drowning rates—was made a reality by participating in Innovation Challenge ’14, NDSU’s third annual student innovation competition.

The competition, sponsored by the NDSU Research and Technology Park, provides an organized way for students to present ideas, earn prize money and learn more about the process of turning ideas into a viable organization or business.

McCarthy won the top prize in the service category of the competition. The $5,000 award provided the bulk of the money necessary for McCarthy to begin teaching children to swim this spring in Nepal.

However, the prize money was just part of the competition’s benefits. Innovation Challenge also helped McCarthy cultivate the idea and provided valuable input from others on how to bring the project to fruition.

It helped him to begin saving lives.  

Recent graduate Jonathon McCarthy saw a problem and a way to solve it. He refined his idea while participating in NDSU’s annual student innovation competition, where his team won first place in the service category. This spring he launched an organization that addresses accidental drowning around the world.

McCarthy, 21, discovered that drowning is a major problem in many underdeveloped countries. He learned that it is the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide. In some countries, it’s the leading cause of unintentional death for children.

But he couldn’t find organizations dedicated to drowning prevention. It didn’t appear solving this problem was a priority for anyone.

So he brainstormed and came up with the idea for an organization to provide free swimming lessons to children around the world. The student innovation competition provided the platform for refining his idea.

And this spring, McCarthy brought Aqua Motion International to life. He spent 18 days in Nepal, where monsoon season brings flash floods and new bodies of water that can be deadly for children who can’t swim.

He and a group of more than 36 Nepalese instructors taught basic swimming lessons to about 2,000 children over 12 days in May and June. The three-day sessions were spread out over four pools in Kathmandu.

McCarthy also instructed teachers from about 50 schools in Nepal on teaching children how to hold their breath, float, tread water and develop a basic front safety stroke. Those teachers hopefully will be able to instruct additional children each year to help save more lives, McCarthy said.

Andrew Moe, an accounting major from Pequot Lakes, Minn., documented the trip to Nepal with a pair of video cameras. The footage will be used to show potential corporate partners and donors the impact of the swimming lessons.

Moe and McCarthy partnered for the innovation competition victory. Both students also were members of Entrepreneurs of NDSU, a campus organization that helps move student business ideas into a working business plan.

The project in Nepal was a continuation of years of swimming instruction for McCarthy, a management major from Coon Rapids, Minn.

The former high school swimmer began teaching summer lessons at age 16 in his family’s backyard pool. McCarthy started with about 10 children per week, and grew the business to 75 children per week in the fifth year.

“We would love to be able to eventually grow this organization, so we could bring portable pools to rural areas to teach lessons,” McCarthy said of Aqua Motion International. “We would love to make it a worldwide organization.”

Registration for Innovation Challenge ’15 will open in September. Watch for details.


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