By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Last Sunday evening, when Wanda Butts walked onto the stage to accept her award recognizing her as one of CNN’s 2012 Heroes, you could almost hear 1,200 children cheering. Their ovations and applause stretched to Los Angeles – site of CNN’s televised Heroes awards presentation – from Toledo, where Wanda Butts has made a life-long difference.
There in Ohio, Butts has started The Josh Project, a program that has taught over a thousand kids how to swim.
And now, she is a hero.
Wanda Butts’ story is one of triumph formulating from tragedy. Six years ago, her 16-year-old son drowned while rafting with friends. He did not know how to swim. After that terrible day, Wanda started The Josh Project, partnering with the USA Swimming Foundation Make-a-Splash Initiative, so she could teach kids in her community how to swim.
“I never would have thought that anything good would happen from the drowning death of my only son at the age of 16,” she told CNN.com.
Now, she has taught 1,200 kids how to swim. She hopes to do more. She wants to train instructors, bring in higher enrollment, and one day, open her own learn-to-swim facility.
“I would hope that the public will be more aware about drowning prevention, especially in communities where the drowning statistics are much higher and more likely to happen,” Butts said. “Our objective is to change the drowning statistics.”
Nearly two-thirds of black children cannot adequately swim, according to a USA Swimming study. After losing her son six years ago, Wanda Butts made it a goal to change those statistics, one person at a time. The Josh Project, a non-profit that allows kids the chance to take four swimming lessons for ten dollars, aims to teach at-risk children in underprivileged communities.
For her amazing and inspiring efforts, Butts was awarded a 2012 CNN Hero Award, presented to “everyday people changing the world.” She was one of 10 recipients of the award. Cullen Jones, 2012 Olympian and ambassador of the “Make a Splash” initiative, presented her with the award.
“I saw nothing but disaster and tragedy from Josh's drowning,” Wanda Butts said told CNN. “Now I can see better what the plan was for my son's life and death, and mine. His death was so others could have a fuller life and possibly a longer life because of their knowing how to swim...”
Wanda Butts’ journey is a beautiful and touching story of a mother making a difference. Through her actions and perseverance and work ethic, the spirit of her son lives on through The Josh Project. And now, recognized as one of CNN’s Heroes, Wanda Butts received $50,000.
But her impact lasts longer than money or awards. Wanda Butts has shown the world what it takes to be a true hero: a willingness to help others, a determination to help her own community, and a declaration that, from horrific tragedy, she would create a triumph.
You could hear them cheering in Toledo. The 1,200 kids who are no longer scared of the water. The 1,200 kids no longer worried about attending pool parties or swimming with friends. The 1,200 kids who were awarded a graduation present upon completing lessons given through The Josh Project: a T-shirt that says, “I Can Swim.” And wouldn’t it be remarkable if every child – all races, all backgrounds -- could wear a T-shirt like that?
You can be sure Wanda Butts is seeing to it that, one day, they will.