TOLEDO, Ohio — As a child, Wanda Butts learned to stay away from the water. Her father had witnessed a drowning when he was young and passed down a fear of swimming.
Like many blacks, she didn’t learn to swim, and she instilled those same anxieties in her son, never taking him to the pool or enrolling him in lessons.
So when 16-year-old Josh drowned in a lake four years ago, she blamed herself. Months later, her grief turned to action and she decided to start a program that gives low-cost swim lessons to children, most of whom are black and from the inner city.
“I just want to save another parent from beating themselves up like I’ll do the rest of my life,” she said. “I was grieving. I was sad, but I wanted to do something.”
In three years, 800 kids have signed up for lessons. And summers usually have a waiting list of a dozen families.
What Butts is doing is breaking a generational cycle of blacks who don’t know how to swim, one child at a time. But the challenge is daunting.
Seven out of 10 black children have little or no swimming ability, according to a study released last spring by USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body. By comparison, six of 10 Hispanic children and four in 10 white children couldn’t swim, the same report said