Growing up, Liz Huber spent her summers teaching 4-year-olds to swim at the Swim and Saddle Club, the same country club where she had learned to swim years earlier. But “year after year, I just knew that whatever I was doing in that pool was not what was teaching them to swim,” she said.
As she aged, she spent time in her Florida condo with her husband and two young daughters, Scotty and Abby. In 2016, the Hubers had hosted a displaced family in Florida. That family was left without a place to stay after their 18-month-old son drowned and their vacation rental expired. It was then Huber learned drowning is the leading cause of death for kids age 1 to 4. That October, playing in the pool, Huber was letting her infant dunk under shallow water. A waiter approached, commenting that the little girl wasn’t afraid of water.
“That’s really dangerous,” he said, and recommended Infant Swimming Resource (ISR), a 52-year-old training program that teaches children how to survive in water. Two years later, Huber credits the program with changing her family’s life. Now, the River Forest resident is changing her community. She has founded the nonprofit CAST Foundation for Water Safety, which will provide swimming lessons to children in the Forest Park area. Huber has purchased the building at 7630 Madison St., between Starship Restaurant and Catering and Gaetano’s, and plans to build an above-ground pool, community education room, event area and more in the approximately 5,000 square-foot space. She aims to have the renovation done by next June. She has already hired one woman to be an ISR instructor, whose kids Huber all taught to swim. She said there’s room for about five more teachers.
“My sister-in-law teases me that I drank swimming Kool-Aid,” Huber said, adding: “Life was simpler before we did this, but we’re happy, we’re passionate and driven.”
After learning about ISR two years ago, Huber returned to life in River Forest, where she taught at nearby Longfellow Elementary School in Oak Park. She felt determined to teach her then-10-month-old and 2-year-old to swim, but when she looked into nearby ISR instructors’ availability, she realized there were just three teachers within 80 miles of the city. The earliest available appointment for her girls was four months away, in west suburban Oakbrook, at 6:30 a.m. Huber paid the $105 registration fee, along with the approximately $100 weekly fee, and registered for the class.
“I said, ‘You know what? They have to swim. We have a lifestyle on the water, they have to be safe, so we committed to it,'” she said.
Sessions lasted 10-minutes daily for six weeks. The first two weeks of classes, Huber thought the fee was kind of expensive. The third week she drove out there, she felt like it was kind of far away. But by the fourth week, her kids were rolling on their backs, floating in the water.
“My 2-year-old has a gross motor delay, so she wasn’t running, jumping, or climbing stairs yet, but she was swimming,” Huber said. “To me, as a parent, I felt validated and proud that I stuck it out and that I did this for my kids and gave them this gift.”
She told everyone who would listen about ISR’s impact. But when it came time for her daughters’ three-day refresher course three months later, their instructor had moved to Aurora, nearly 35 miles and 40-minutes from her home. Huber’s daughters still had the 6:30 a.m. time slot; now the family was waking up at 5:05 a.m.
“At first, I got mad at ISR that they didn’t have more people,” she said.
But then, she looked at ISR’s career page. Huber learned individuals have to dedicate eight weeks to full-time training to become a certified instructor, and realized people can’t afford to dedicate the time, don’t know about the program and that finding pool space is tough.
Growing up as the heir to the Alberto Culver global consumer products firm — which her grandfather founded in 1955 and the family eventually sold to Unilever for $3.7 billion in 2011 — Huber realized she could do something, thinking it might be the perfect mix of her teaching, business and charitable interests. Her mother had always told her “with great privilege comes great responsibility.” When she worked as a teacher, her mother always pushed her to open her own school or become a principal.
“It used to drive me insane,” Huber said, feeling that just because her mom, entrepreneur and philanthropist Carol Lavin Bernick, thought up big plans, didn’t mean she needed to. Huber was happy as an elementary school teacher. But “when I found this, I was able to kind of let my guard down and think, ‘Alright, if there are resources and connections that we need to grow this team and spread the word and make it available to everybody, then maybe I should,” she said.
Huber applied and was accepted to ISR swim instructor training, welcoming master instructors from Arizona into her home to teach her how to be an ISR instructor. After eight weeks, she passed the course but then faced the challenge of finding a pool to teach in. Huber taught at gyms, people’s backyards, hotel pools, spending 20 hours a week just looking for pool space. Finally, her mom and husband approached her, asking if she was trying to reach as many children as possible or if she was just trying to prove a point.
“They said, ‘You have the privilege to be able to help more kids if you can get over your need to do it all yourself,'” she said. “So this one school that we were never going to open because I was going to do everything by myself is ours now.”
Huber and her husband founded the CAST Water Safety Foundation, which will provide ISR services to children ages six months to six years old — “But if there’s an 8-year-old who doesn’t know how to swim, we’ll take them,” she said. The nonprofit will partner with the Live Like Jake drowning prevention foundation, to provide families of drowning victims free swimming lessons. She said ISR also offers scholarships to families of first-responders, military, teachers and more.
“I’ve had moms crying at my knees at lessons, saying ‘Why did you know about this before your child died? My child drowned,'” Huber said. “I’m trying to help people early in life, change statistics for childhood drowning and improve quality of life for people later on.”