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Campus and community team up for National Water Safety Month

| Denise Olson

UW-Eau Claire is known as the most beautiful campus in the UW System, due in no small part to the majestic Chippewa River that flows through the heart of the university. The river provides both a breathtaking backdrop to campus and a source of recreation for students and community members interested in fishing, kayaking and tubing on those hot summer days.

The river can, however, also be a source of danger, especially for students caught off-guard or uneducated about the inherent risks of this powerful body of water. 

May is National Water Safety Month, and the 2017 Leadership Fellows cohort at UW-Eau Claire is teaming with the Eau Claire Water Safety Task Force in a targeted effort to raise awareness among students of the potentially deadly hazards posed by the river, especially to students who may have consumed too much alcohol.

The campus team is resurrecting a safety campaign launched in 2015 by student peer educators in the former Center for Alcohol Studies and Education (C.A.S.E.). The safety campaign, called Be Smart, Buddy Up, urged students to stick together, especially at the end of a night of drinking alcohol, and to stay away from the river.

The idea for the Be Smart, Buddy Up program came from a peer educator in the C.A.S.E. office, a senior named Mat Rieckhoff, whose friend and wrestling teammate, Ricky Gonzales, drowned in the river in 2011 after wandering off alone from the Water Street area. The basic concept of the campaign is still relevant, and bringing it back for a second wind seemed like a great idea for Water Safety Month. See related 2015 story.

"After restructuring of campus offices and services, and the departure of the C.A.S.E. program director, the Buddy Up program sort of fell off the campus radar. We (the Leadership Fellows) are reviving the program with support from the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, campus fraternity members, the Eau Claire Fire Department, and the Office of Health Promotion, which is a blend of services previously offered by C.A.S.E. and Student Health Services peer educators," said Jessica Barnier, one of the Leadership Fellows. "Our focus is mainly to prevent drownings in the community, especially among young males drinking on and around the river, the demographic shown to be most at risk."

The efforts of the Be Smart, Buddy Up campaign will include a couple video PSAs to be shown online and in UW-Eau Claire's Woodland Theater, along with digital signage around campus, posters, and a coaster campaign launched in partnership with taverns on Water Street. The coasters, designed to resemble a flotation ring, will be distributed to bartenders, along with the coaster design for reordering if they care to carry the message beyond May.

All three of the campus fraternities, FIJI, Delta Sigma Phi, and Delta Tau Delta, are participating in the Be Smart, Buddy Up campaign this time around, which is an added boost from the initial efforts. Each fraternity is working with local businesses to promote water safety, and distributing the posters and coasters to restaurants and bars. 

Members of the Greek houses issued a joint comment about their efforts in the campaign, stating, "Students often forget that there are risks that come with a river such as the Chippewa or Eau Claire. It is an issue we often forget about that deserves to get some much-needed attention. We hope that along with the Buddy Up project, we can help make our campus and our community safer for all. We look forward to helping put these materials in place and promoting water safety and the resources on campus to help prevent water accidents."

At UW-Eau Claire, the dean of students office oversees most issues of student health, safety and behavior. Dean of Students Joe Abhold is glad to see this issue of responsible and safe actions regarding the river back in the news on campus in this second run of Be Smart, Buddy Up.

"The Be Smart, Buddy Up campaign is a great way to bring awareness to this important safety issue," Abhold said. "While it has been several years since a student has lost their life in the river, it is important for us to pay attention to safety. The Chippewa River is a great asset to our campus and community, and we want students and community members to enjoy it in a way that is fun and safe. We want students to watch out for their friends whether they are out late at night or floating down the river on a sunny day. Being a Blugold means that we take care of each other."

The founder of the 2015 Buddy Up campaign had much at stake personally in the efforts aimed at preventing another drowning like that of his friend and teammate. Reickhoff, now a physical education teacher in Missouri, is very pleased to hear that the efforts he and his C.A.S.E. peers began haven't disappeared from the campus consciousness.

"The Be Smart, Buddy Up concept is not only something to be mindful of during Water Safety Month or being safe on Water Street — it can help save lives every single day."  Rieckhoff said. "If resurrecting this campaign can shed light on the absolute need for advocacy and can help save one person, then it is well worth it."

See WQOW-TV 18 report on this safety campaign.