Volunteer swimming instructor William Knight, 16, eases Octavius Harris, 5, of Toledo into the water at St. Francis.
More than 50 children and their parents lined up Saturday at St. Francis de Sales High School to sign up for swimming lessons with the Josh Project, an organization dedicated to preventing childhood drownings, especially among minorities.
Parents may sign their children up for six 30-minute lessons offered every Saturday through July 26 except for Fourth of July weekend. The children must be at least 4 years old, and registration is $25 each.
The turnout Saturday encouraged Wanda Butts, the Josh Project’s founder, but she said the June 7 drowning of Mustafa Ali, 8, in Sylvania’s Olander Park may be one reason for this year’s high turnout.
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“I think with the recent drowning incident, that has sparked more interest in water safety,” Ms. Butts said, adding that “it’s unfortunate that that is what brought it about.”
Ms. Butts founded the Josh Project after her son Josh, 16, drowned eight years ago. She said that incident got her to where she is today: fighting so other families won’t lose their own children. So far the Josh Project has helped more than 1,200 students learn swimming and other water skills.
Wanda Butts, who founded the Josh Project after her son Josh, 16, drowned eight years ago, speaks to the class.
“Parents have a tendency to find guilt in themselves, blame themselves, for when something like that happens to the children, but we shouldn’t,” Ms. Butts said.
“That’s a terrible tragedy,” Sandy Spang, a Josh Project board member and Toledo city councilman, said of Mustafa’s drowning, “but at the same time, at the start of the swim season, it’s given us the chance to get the message out about water safety.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children ages 5 to 14 drown at almost three times the rate of whites in the same age range. Ms. Butts said the disparity is rooted in access to education, which she said minorities lack compared to whites.
This disparity becomes generational when parents who don’t know how to swim don’t realize they need to teach their children, as was the case with Josh.
But learning to swim may not be the whole problem facing minorities, especially immigrants like Mustafa and his family.
“We’ve noticed a lot of times because people are immigrants they don’t understand signage, they don’t understand protocol,” said Shane Lakatos, the founder and outreach director of Social Services for the Arab Community, a nonprofit organization that offers translation, emergency resources, and other assistance to Arab immigrants.
Keith Dandridge EL of Toledo center, holds onto his daughters Khloe Keith Dandridge El, left, 4, and Ryleigh Keith Dandridge EL, right, 6, while they listen to a water safety seminar given by Wanda Butts at St. Francis de Sales High School on Saturday.
Mr. Lakatos said there are more systemic problems facing the immigrant community that make it difficult for them to adjust to life in the United States, but he agreed that the solution has to do with education.
Whatever the problem, Ms. Butts is convinced the statistics can change.
“Drowning can be prevented,” she said. She sighed. “I used to say drowning is preventable, and it is preventable, but ... you have to educate yourself and be aware of what you should and should not do around water in order to be safe.”
For more information about the Josh Project, visit joshdev.org or call 567-343-0766.