When Josh Butts’ mother was a teenager, she attended a church picnic that quickly turned from a tranquil to a horrifying experience. Two people drowned in the body of water adjoining the picnic grounds - and she was an eyewitness.
Traumatized by the experience, Josh’s mother gave water a wide berth. When she became a mother, she kept her children away from water completely. Her oldest daughter, Tankeeya, had never had a swimming lesson and knew nothing about how to act around water.
Josh, born to his parents after 15 years of hoping and praying for another child, was raised the same way. Water and water safety were never discussed. They were non-issues. Non-topics.
Josh’s mother was trying to protect her family in the best way she knew, but this knowledge gap brought about the very situation she feared.
Josh was a kindhearted, lovable kid. Smart and witty, he spent his free time playing basketball, drawing and reading. In August 2006, 16-year-old Josh spent a Saturday night at the home of friends who his mother, Wanda, knew. What Wanda didn’t know was that on Sunday the boys decided to go spend the morning at Bird Lake, an hour and a half’s drive away.
The friends brought an inflatable raft and let Josh be the first one to try it. Josh climbed on at the water’s edge and set sail. His friends came out after him and tried to clamber on so they could all enjoy a peaceful glide on the lake together - but the raft capsized. While the raft wasn’t that far from the bank, unbeknownst to the boys, they had passed over a 20 foot dropoff in the lake floor. Josh fell into deep water... and didn’t make it out.
Had Josh been familiar with basic water safety, he would have been aware of the dangers of floating on a raft in an unfamiliar body of water. At the very least, he would have been wearing a life jacket.
But he wasn’t, he hadn’t, and he left behind a devastated family and community.
“After he died, I didn't know what to do, what to say,” tells his mother Wanda. “I didn't think I'd ever be normal again. It took me years before I could talk about it. It's gut wrenching.”
Wanda soon found out that her family’s lack of water awareness - while possibly exacerbated by her childhood experience - was not at all uncommon among her community.
African American children die three times more often than white children from drowning. Contributing factors are lack of access to pools and equipment, lack of funding for swimming lessons - which tend to be expensive - and most importantly, lack of knowledge.
“People are simply unaware that it is an issue. Nobody ever told us it was an issue.
In school, they teach you to look both ways before you cross the street - we were taught THAT but not water education! Why?” asks Wanda.
“Education and awareness is key! It's critical in our African American urban communities!”
Since the tragedy, it has become Wanda’s mission to raise that awareness and provide that education in the communities that need it most. She speaks at churches, telling Josh’s story. Her nonprofit, The Josh Project, organizes swimming and water safety lessons for urban African American children in connection with the Greater Toledo Aquatics Swim Club.
“We started on a Sunday in March 2007 with 42 students in swim class. Since then, we've served thousands of students.”
The Josh Project is now an official nonprofit organization, directed by Tankeeya Butts, Josh’s older sister. Wanda feels that it honors Josh and ensures that other families won’t have to face the same preventable tragedy.
“In our 11 years, I have met many families who tell me how happy they are to have the Josh Project. Their kids know how to swim, and without the Josh Project, they wouldn't have known. Drowning deaths are PREVENTABLE. By teaching water safety, we’re saving lives.”