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Portrait of a Hero: Wanda Butts

Updated 5:30 PM ET, Tue November 27, 2012
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Wanda Butts lost her son in a drowning accident six years ago. In his memory, she started the Josh Project, a nonprofit that taught nearly 1,200 children, most of them minorities, how to swim. Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
A photo of Josh hangs from Butts' neck. Josh drowned in 2006 while rafting on a lake with friends. The 16-year-old didn't know how to swim, and he wasn't wearing a life jacket, Butts said. Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
Butts talks about water safety during an assembly at the Gesu School in Toledo, Ohio. One of her goals is to raise awareness about drowning prevention, especially in communities where statistics indicate drownings are more likely to happen. Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
According to USA Swimming, 70% of African-American children cannot swim, compared with nearly 60% for Hispanic children and 42% for white children. African-American children between the ages of 5 and 14 drown at a rate almost three times higher than white children in the same age range. Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
Children at the Gesu School learn how to put on a life jacket. "As a child, I never went around water," Butts said. "I never went swimming. I didn't know anything about water or life jackets and water safety." Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
Photographer Jeff Hutchens said, "This whole thing has come out of tragedy within Wanda's life, and you can see how much passion she now has for making sure that kind of thing doesn't happen again to other parents or children." Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
Butts said she is now finding positives from her son's tragic death. "His death from drowning gave my life meaning, because I can now share with others the importance of knowing how to swim and the importance of knowing water safety," she said. Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
Children prepare for swimming lessons at St. Francis de Sales High School in Toledo. Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
Children listen to their instructor during lessons at the high school. Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
"All children are at risk of drowning," Butts said, "but the majority of the children that the Josh Project serves are minority children, who we have found are more at risk." Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
The lessons take place over four Saturdays for a total cost of $10. Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
"(Butts) makes everybody feel special," photographer Hutchens said. "She goes out of her way to show them that she cares about them." Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
Butts says she wants the Josh Project to eventually have its own swimming facility so students can practice what they learn in their weekly lessons. Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN
"Drowning is preventable if you know the rules," Butts said. "Awareness, education and knowledge is key. That was something I did not have." Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images for CNN