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The NSRI’s Executive Director of Drowning Prevention, Dr Jill Fortuin, was a recent recipient of the Lifesaving South Africa Long Service Award.

Lifesaving South Africa’s Long Service Award is granted to individuals who have unselfishly devoted 25 or more years to the values and mission of the organisation. Earlier this year, the NSRI’s Executive Director of Drowning Prevention, Dr Jill Fortuin, was awarded this great honour. Her response? “How awesome!”

Of course, she had more to say: “I am truly thrilled to have my work and my mission recognised in this way. To hold your own, to excel in what is known to be a male-dominated environment, is tough. To be a person of colour, let alone a woman, is even more challenging. To serve as a lifeguard, instructor, coach, and committee member at lifesaving clubs in disadvantaged communities has its rewards, but it is also hard. However, if one’s focus is ‘to serve, and not be served’, then one’s motivation and perseverance is not lost. Knowing my roots, paying it forward, and being an inspiration to others is what has kept me going for over 25 years.”

Jill also attributes her career success to cultivating discipline from an early age, which she learnt from her parents, Paul and Eileen Fortuin, who’ve been involved in lifesaving since Jill was a child, and still are. “Lifesaving has also assisted me in other aspects of my education and work experience, from exposure to first aid and CPR at a very young age, to managing people through being a squad leader, knowing how committees function, and the importance of water safety.”

Perhaps the biggest influence on her motivation to make a difference, though, is an experience she had when she was just 16 years old: “I was watching this girl in the tidal pool at Strandfontein Pavilion, bouncing around in the water, thinking, ‘Why is she not coming towards the shallow section? It’s deep where she is.’ I then realised when I caught a glimpse of her eyes – I was that close – that she is in trouble and swallowing water. I reached out and got her to safety, but she was not breathing. I administered artificial respiration and after about three minutes she started coughing up lots of water. This made such an impression that I decided to begin carefully observing the signs of a drowning person, and put this into action. This led to a boring but very necessary job where I would almost always be put on the watchtower, as I was good at spotting risky situations and potential rescues quickly.”

Without a doubt, she has encountered, and overcome, her fair share of challenges, such as a lack of dedicated female changing facilities at lifesaving clubs, as well as not being taken seriously when giving an instruction. In addition, she says, when females take a leave of absence to start a family for three years or longer, they have to redo their lifeguard award or apply for a recognition of prior learning award. “Most recently, in April 2022, I passed my award so I can get back onto the beach and be a lifeguard or a safety officer for the Strandfontein Nippers, which I coach.”

Fortuin rekindled the Strandfontein Nipper programme in 2017, building it up from scratch to a successful programme that now serves over 40 Nippers. Under her guidance, the Lifesaving Western Cape Nipper Interprovincial Nippers won the Lifesaving SA Surf Interprovincial Championships in both 2021 and 2022. She has also coached individual athletes from Strandfontein Surf Lifesaving to three national titles and various podium finishes.

In May 2021, Jill was appointed Executive Director of Drowning Prevention at the NSRI, a role she’s taken on with zeal. Her current duties within the organisation are to expand the NSRI’s Drowning Prevention services, and she and her team are certainly making progress: to date, their programmes and instruction courses have reached over 3,5 million South Africans, 1 335 Pink Rescue Buoys [PRBs] have been deployed, 123 PRB rescues have taken place, and three beach safety cameras have been installed.

“We started with eight water safety instructors, then expanded to 17, and today we have 31. Bearing in mind we want to reach the entire population of 60 million people!” she says.

It’s an impressive ambition, and a reflection of her passion for this lifesaving work. Her Long Service Award is richly deserved, and there are surely more to come.

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