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Strokes Of Geniusby Emily Rippe
Even heroes have weaknesses. For Toledoan Wanda Butts, that weakness is the water.
Wanda was never taught how to swim. She didn't know about the importance of wearing a life jacket, or not swimming in unauthorized areas. She was told to never go near the water. So she didn't think twice about it.
Wanda raised her son Josh the way any mother would. She told him to eat right and do well in school. Stay off drugs. Be polite to his elders. But she couldn't teach him how to be safe in a lake. When Josh drowned at the age of 16, she simply couldn't believe it.
Finding the courage to face her fear of the water wasn't easy, but she had to for Josh's sake. In 2007, Wanda founded The Josh Project, a non-profit organization that provides low-cost swimming lessons to children in Toledo, predominantly minority students.
"It's my mission to teach every child in our program the ten dos and dont's of swimming," Wanda said in a phone interview. "It'll sound funny, but the first thing I tell them is not to run around the pool."
In the past 5 years, The Josh Project has helped more than 1,000 children learn how to swim. Partnering with the Greater Toledo Aquatic Club and the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, The Josh Project is able to provide affordable swimming lessons and water safety training to kids who have limited access to swimming pools.
If Wanda's story sounds familiar, you may have seen her on the national news. She was recently nominated as a CNN Hero of the Year for her efforts with The Josh Project. As a top ten contender, she will receive a $50,000 grant to provide lessons to more children, and has a chance at receiving an additional $250,000 grant.
"In my eyes, Josh is the real hero here, he's the one who lost his life," Wanda said. "But I appreciate the fact they are calling me one. I'm just a mother who doesn't want another mother to suffer the way I do every day."
If she becomes the CNN Hero of the Year, Wanda will push to have an aquatic center where the children in her program can swim on a daily basis, as opposed to just once a week.
CNN will announce the results during a live broadcast on Sunday, December 2nd. Online voting by the public will run until Midnight on Wednesday, November 28. Just visit www.cnnheroes.com to read her profile and vote for Wanda. You can vote up to ten times each day.
Meanwhile, a new season of swim lessons is beginning tomorrow, Saturday, October 6 with 60 new students. Wanda expects a few last minute registrants to join. And she's also excited about being able to offer swim classes for adults this year.
"I hope one day very soon I'll feel comfortable enough to learn how to swim myself," Butts said.
If you really want to help Wanda make a difference, consider volunteering for the Josh Project. Additional swim coaches and administrative assistants are needed. Visit www.joshproject.org for more information.
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