Unsung Hero: Linda Blanton, swimming against the tides of trouble

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HARPSWELL — As a teenager in Florida, Linda Blanton worked as a lifeguard. One day she came to open the pool and discovered the bodies of two children at the bottom. They had climbed the fence, gone into the pool and drowned.

The experience had a lifelong impact on her. Blanton has been teaching swimmers and teachers of swimmers for the last 40 years.

Today this Bailey Island resident contributes her boundless energy and savvy leadership to numerous organizations, both inside and outside the pool. If she sees a need, she steps in to fill it. And she does so with a quip and a smile.

Serving as a water safety instructor tops Blanton’s long list of volunteer activities. For several years she has served as co-director of the summer swim program and the school swim program sponsored by Harpswell and the American Red Cross. The programs bring young people to the Bowdoin College pool to learn to swim.

“We live near the water, so it’s very important that everyone knows how to swim,” Blanton said. “When I began with the program, we only had 40 kids. Today we have about 240.”

Besides recruiting volunteers and organizing the schedule, Blanton spends many hours teaching others how to teach swimming.

“They start out helping us work with the really little kids in the shallow end when they’re as young as 10 years old; and then they go on to become teachers,” she said. “When I see a kid’s face light up as if to say, ‘I’m swimming!’ it makes me cry. I’m just a wimp.”

The word “wimp” does not exactly fit Blanton.

She worked as a nurse in the U.S. Army during the time of the Vietnam War and, later, during the Gulf War. To this day she works as a disaster volunteer for the Red Cross. In that capacity, she has traveled around the country to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Andrew and the floods in Iowa. Closer to home, she is sometimes called to assist families who have been devastated by fires or other calamities.

Blanton has also mentored several students over the last 15 years for the Sweetser program. She’s currently mentoring two young women who grew up in a troubled home situation.

“I just try to show them that there are other ways to live,” she said. In addition to opening these young women’s eyes to the world, Blanton is instilling a message that is important to all young people: “I believe in you, and I care about you.”

Blanton reads to children in local schools as part of the Community Read program, and recalled with a smile the time a boy who was also in the swimming program said to her, “I like you because you can read and you can swim.” Another student said, “I didn’t know you wore anything besides a bathing suit.”

Blanton also serves as a mentor for Habitat for Humanity. And because she’s been certified as a master gardener and a master food preserver, she’s qualified to serve as a judge at local fairs. Her love of gardening has also led her to volunteer at the botanical gardens in Boothbay.

And then there’s her work as a county extension officer. And with the Seventh Day Adventist Clothes Bank.

She is a volunteer extraordinaire. But she doesn’t believe that she’s all that special.

“I just do the little things to help when I can,” Blanton said – although in her case, those “little things” come in many packages.

She follows the advice she would impart to young people about living a meaningful life: “Make the world a better place. Do what you love. And surround yourself with positive people.”

Sidebar Elements

Linda Blanton works with children in the pool Monday during the her annual swimming camp, held at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. Blanton and colleague Don Miskill lead a program that teaches swimming and coaching leadership.

Unsung Heroes

One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: heroes@theforecaster.net.