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Published: Saturday, 6/16/2007

The Josh Project will save lives

BY ROSE RUSSELL

EVERY summer it warms our hearts to hear the laughter of youngsters frolicking and swimming in pools and other places. However, many of them probably shouldn't be in water because they don't know how to swim well enough to save themselves if they get into trouble.

Although the clarion call continues to sound about how important it is that children learn to swim, not enough of them do. It's especially true among black children, and Wanda Butts is on a mission to try to change that.

Rather than succumb to her own grief and become immobilized over the tragic loss of her only son, 16-year-old John Joshua Darnell Butts, Ms. Butts is turning that pain into positive action by giving more children in the urban region access to water safety lessons.

It's an effort she's dubbed "The Josh Project."

It began earlier this month at St. Francis de Sales High School in cooperation with the Greater Toledo Aquatic Club. Ms. Butts has an older daughter and she has two grandsons. So among the 42 children enrolled are those grandsons, ages 11 and 7.

She's pleased that children are still signing up. And to think Ms. Butts worried that there wouldn't be enough interest.

"My mission is to [avoid having] another mother or father feel what I will feel the rest of my life," Ms. Butts told me on Thursday. She is an assignment clerk in the judges' division at the Toledo Municipal Court.

Joshua died last August when his inflatable raft capsized on Bird Lake in Hillsdale County, Michigan.

His mother maintains, and rightly so, that if he had known how to swim he might be here today. He was a student at the Toledo Accelerated Academy and had planned to enlist in the Air Force.

Although her "pride and joy" is gone, Ms. Butts wants others to become water safe and to know more than enough to be comfortable bouncing about in shallow water.

Acting on her inspiration to minimize the number of water deaths among African-Americans, last fall Ms. Butts contacted the national governing body for swimming, which put her in contact with the local acquatic club.

Now, she has joined a nationwide effort to encourage African-American children to learn to swim competitively, even if they do not enter competitions.

Children in every community should know how to save themselves in water. But with as many bodies of water as we have in this region, water safety is not a priority in most black American homes.

Certainly, families enroll youngsters in swim lessons. After a few weeks' instruction, some emerge erroneously thinking they know how to swim. But they are not really competent in a short time.

Interestingly, exactly a year ago Keith Kennedy, the head coach at GTAC and St. Francis, wrote an essay on this page about this very subject. He wrote that more youngsters need to become water safe, including those in urban neighborhoods.

As the issue gains attention, he and Ms. Butts are becoming part of a force to see that the number of these deaths are reduced.

As a matter of fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2000 and 2004, the overall drowning rate for blacks was 1.3 times that of whites.

And Safe Kids Worldwide, an accident prevention effort, says that low-income children are at greater risk for non-swimming pool drownings. That agency also says black males from ages 5 to 9 have a swimming-pool related drowning rate of 4.5 times that of whites that age, and that black males from 10 to 14 have a pool-related drowning rate 15 times that of whites in that age group.

"Swimming is not a priority with our people," Ms. Butts said. The statistics support her point. "It's a life skill. We really need to know how to swim."

Before the young charges of the Josh Project are labeled competent swimmers, they must first become comfortable enough to jump into water 12 feet deep and swim to the other pool side, at least 10 yards away. That may not happen in four lessons, which is why the Josh Project and GTAC are willing to give swim students the time they need.

In the meantime, Ms. Butts has her hands full. She's visiting churches to tell her heart-breaking story and to plead with parents to see that their children learn to swim.

She's also raising funds to pay for the lessons, which are given at no cost to the youngsters. A gospel music festival to support the Josh Project is set for Aug. 18 at her church, Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church.

As more Toledo children learn to swim, who knows whether one is waiting to break out into a butterfly stroke and swim with exceptional speed and become another Cullen Jones? That young black man is one of the world's fastest swimmers.

If such a local young swimmer emerges eventually, he or she will have Ms. Butts to thank for helping to save lives as she endures the loss of her son and promotes the Josh Project.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

E-mail rrussell@theblade.com



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