It never occurred to Wanda Butts that her only son, Josh, needed swimming lessons.
As a girl, she’d never spent any time in the pool, either.
“My dad saw two kids drown at a church picnic and wouldn’t let us go near the water after that,” says the Toledo, Ohio, court clerk. “Growing up, swimming just wasn’t on our radar. And that’s also how it was with my son.”
Everything changed on Aug. 6, 2006 – the day Josh, 16, drowned in a rafting accident during a trip to a Michigan lake with friends.
“He didn’t have a life jacket and the raft tipped over,” she says quietly. “It’s a phone call that no parent should have to get. If Josh had known how to swim, I wouldn’t be talking about him in the past tense today.”
She soon learned her son’s death wasn’t an anomaly. Statistics show inner-city kids, particularly African-Americans, are five times more likely to drown than other children due to a lack of money for swimming lessons, as well as a dearth of pools.
So in 2007 Butts, now 61, formed the Josh Project to give free swimming lessons and water-safety training to local kids. So far she and her daughter, Tankeeya Butts, have signed up more than 1,300 children.
St. Francis de Sales High School in Toledo donates time at the school’s pool for the classes. Certified volunteers teach the classes, and children are allowed to continue in the program “for as long as it takes,” says Butts.
“Black, white, whatever color they are, wherever they are from, all are welcome,” she says. “Every child should be able to have fun in the water and stay safe.”
For city parents who have never taken their children swimming, “the Josh Project is literally a lifesaver,” says Lisa Haynes, 53, whose 17-year-old son, Orlando Joshua, recently graduated with a swimming certificate.
With her neighborhood pool closed and no money for swimming lessons, “Wanda has helped give me peace of mind,” she says. “Now I don’t have to worry so much when my son is near water. He’s mastered everything from the butterfly to the backstroke, and we owe it all to Wanda. She’s a strong person with a big heart.”
Butts, who tells kids that “swimming is the only sport that can save your life,” has now started free classes for adults who have never known the pleasure – or safety – of swimming.
“I’m finally going to take the leap myself and take some lessons,” she says. “I know Josh would be proud.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine