Young swimmers prep for summer with water safety lesson by The Josh ProjectWritten by Danielle Stanton | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Standing near a pool where her students tread water, Toledoan Wanda Butts said teaching life-saving water skills to young children has become her life’s calling.
“I think that’s my calling and I think that’s what I’m meant to do,” Butts said June 14. “I want [the parents] not to suffer like I did. Lately, I’ve been calling myself M.A.D. — Mothers Against Drowning,”
Butt’s 16-year-old son, Josh, drowned Aug. 6, 2006, while rafting with friends at Bird Lake in Michigan. He was not wearing a life vest when the raft capsized. Butts said she had no idea her son would be swimming that day, only that he was spending the night with friends.
Butts was devastated. A year later, she turned tragedy into action – and found her calling – when she founded The Josh Project.
The nonprofit organization that teaches young children how to swim and has garnered national attention hosted swimming lessons for about 65 children June 14 at St. Francis de Sales High School indoor pool and will continue to do so every Saturday through July 26 except July 4 weekend.
On June 14, some returning students and 57 new students paid the $25 registration fee for six 30-minute lessons. The students had to be at least 4 years old.
The children, mostly from inner-city homes, learned survival skills in the water, said City Councilwoman Sandy Spang, who is on the board of The Josh Project and helped lead the event.
The city is also partnering with The Josh Project through its Youth Commission to offer $500 in scholarships to what it calls a “critical community effort.”
“It fits in with the Youth Commission’s mission. It’s discretionary spending so it’s part of their budget,” Spang said. “The goal is to provide scholarships so there’s no student who can’t afford not to take lessons from The Josh Project.”
Awareness was recently heightened when 8-year-old Mustafa Ali drown June 7 at Olander Park in Sylvania. The boy’s parents were at the park at the time he went missing. He was found unresponsive in the lake and later pronounced dead at the hospital.
Spang said many of the families in attendance June 14 may have come out because of increased fear. That would be hard to estimate, she said, but the drowning that came at the beginning of summer certainly affected those on The Josh Project, especially Butts, she said.
“Every time a child drowns it takes me back to my son and his drowning. And my heart always goes out to the mother and family of the drowning victim,” Butts said. “It was a drowning that was an accident and when things like that happen, you tend to blame yourself, like I did with my son. I’d like to tell the parents, ‘It doesn’t help to blame yourself. It was an accident and accidents happen.’ It really bothers me. But it helps me to know that the things we are doing are good things and need to be done.”
Julio Martinez, who brought his 5-year-old daughter to the lessons, believes the training will help if his daughter is ever in a panic situation. His children have some experience swimming in their family pool but since they’ve moved they don’t get as much water time.
“It’s important to have them be capable, competent and aware while in the pool,” Martinez said. “It will eliminate the panic attack when you don’t feel in control.”
Since The Josh Project began in 2007, 1,400 children have been instructed in life-saving swim skills by certified instructors.
To “graduate,” students must be able to tread water for 30 seconds and float on their back, swim 50 yards with rotational breathing and be able to jump into deep water and swim safely to land.
Students also learned about water safety education, including how to stay safe in and around water, identify and know safety apparatus, how to wear a flotation device and what to do in case of a water emergency.
Paperwork given to parents by The Josh Project says a child may need many lessons before he or she can swim independently. They need year-round practice, regular supervised exposure and positive encouragement.
“It’s important to watch your children at all times in and around the water. You got to watch the children — you’ve got to watch them,” Butts said. “I don’t want anyone to have to live the way I do. I miss my son.”
Butts discovered that water knowledge is generational: if a child’s parents has it, then the child will, too. Her parents were afraid of the water, she said, and therefore, she didn’t expose Josh to water or water safety.
“I had never been given education on drowning prevention or swimming. My parents didn’t swim and don’t swim. We found it’s generational,” she said.
Butts also discovered statistics that shocked her: 70 percent of African-American children can’t swim, which increases the risk of fatal drownings by three times in black families over their white counterparts. Most frustrating for Wanda was that Josh’s death could have been prevented with basic swimming and water safety education.
The Josh Project developed with the help of USA Swimming. The national governing board connected Butts to her local swimming organization, The Greater Toledo Aquatic Club. GTAC worked with Butts to create a swimming educational program for the Toledo community. GTAC offered swim instructors and pool time at a discounted rate so The Josh Project was accessible to all.
Butts visited local churches to recruit participants and the project’s first session was held March 2007 – eight months after Josh’s death – with 42 students, many whom were the first in their family to learn how to swim.
The Josh Project has gained national attention, including in 2012 when Butts was selected as one of CNN’s “Heroes” and in 2009 when she was featured on the HBO series “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” People from around the world inquired about how to set up a similar program in their hometowns. She has also been profiled in people.com and huffingtonpost.com.
Chapters have been started in Norfolk, Va., and Bloomington Hills, Mich.
“Each year I get more and more excited,” Butts said. “It seems to get better and more people are aware.”
“Drowning, it’s an accident and it is going to happen,” Butts said. “Really, I know I can’t stop all drowning, but I can take cautionary measures to help prevent drowning.”