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Every drop holds a story: Drownings highest among African American population

Posted at 11:22 PM, Jul 29, 2016
Kids are drowning at one of the highest rates on record. From 2000 to 2014, 530 kids 19-years-old and younger drown just in the state of Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
 
But one demographic is being hit the hardest.
 
Water is the giver of life but also the taker for way too many children in the African American community.
 
According to the CDC, black kids drown at a rate 3-times that of their white counterparts.
 
The reason is not as simple as one might think.
 
In this special report, we explore the data and uncover the truth.
 
"It started off as a good day," said mother Bernadette Whiting.
 
August 7th, 1993.
 
"Hot. Hot it was real hot." said Whiting. "He was just so excited about going swimming."
 
"Happy fun time," said Branton Whiting.
 
A happy time indeed at the Marriott on West 150th.
 
Branton Whiting was just like any other 6-year-old, but unlike most, who could not hold anything back, he had a secret.
 
"You never swam?" Asked Newschannel5's Dhomonique Ricks.
 
"No." said Branton Whiting.
 
"Did you have any fear about getting in the water?" Asked Ricks.
 
 "No. I guess as a kid it's more about excitement," said Branton Whiting.
 
In he went. No hesitation.
 
But there was trouble, big trouble.
 
"I heard a scream," said Whiting.
 
A sound only this mother would know.
 
 "That was like the worst feeling ever," said Whiting.
 
Her little boy was there and just like that, gone.
 
Seconds later, she walked into a brand new world.
 
"My kid...My my....my son." said Whiting.
 
 "I just remember getting rushed out of the pool, and seeing a t-shirt floating," said Branton Whiting.
 
That t-shirt, belonging to a little boy named Braxton.
 
"Who is Braxton?" Asked Ricks.
 
"My twin brother," said Branton Whiting.
 
The closest of brothers -- twins.
 
Little Braxton and Branton shared not only those squeezable little cheeks, they shared the same dark secret.
 
"Had Braxton swam before?" Asked Ricks.
 
"No," said Branton Whiting.
 
Bernadette says she blacked out.
 
When she woke up, a slice of real life.
 
It was no dream at all.
 
"They let me go back and see him for the final time," said Whiting. "I didn't want to leave the hospital without my son."
 
"Did you blame yourself after it happened?" Asked Ricks. "Yes," said Whiting. "Because I'm their protector."
 
70-percent of black children do not know how to swim according to a national research study by USA swimming and blacks between the ages of 5 and 19 are 5.5 times more likely to drown than whites in the same age bracket.
 
"When young kids grow up unable to swim, it should not be a surprise that they cannot swim. No accessibility leads to the inability to swim." said Dr. Michael Battle, Executive Vice President of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center. 
 
Battle says the reason so many African Americans do not swim dates back to the 18th century.
 
"During the time of slavery, Africans were not taught to swim by plantation owners in part because swimming was associated with the escape to freedom," said Battle.
 
Skill-sets tend to be passed down generation to generation.
 
If something is not learned, chances are, it is not shared.
 
Things did not get any better in the Jim Crow era.
 
"It was segregation with the intent to limit accessibility and opportunities to African-American young people. It would be nice if it were accidental -- the reality is it was quiet  intentionalm," said Battle.
 
And that is why today, the numbers are skewed.
 
In Braxton's case would history have been different had they not gone that day?  Hard to know, of course; it is not clear.
 
This picture is the last image captured of Braxton one month before his death.
 
It was his first time near water.
 
He and twin brother Branton -- playing near the shore.
 
 "They might know how to play in water, but swimming in water is two different things," said Branton Whiting.
 
Something this little girl learned the hard way.
 
You can probably write her story too.
 
She loved to get in the water but did not know how to swim.
 
Unlike Braxton, her story, has a different ending; she lived.
 
That little girl is me.
 
Crippled by fear after two near-drowning experiences in my childhood.
 
One -- in an open body of water.
 
One in the pool.
 
Decades later it was time to be empowered.
 
So in I went facing my fear -- head-on.
 
With a team of professionals like Rosalyn and my coach Gary Gusey, I knew I was in good hands.
 
It started out rough.
 
But after a lot of direction and trial and error, it was time to put what I learned to the test.
 
It was something I never did: swim. Let alone 25 yards.
 
From pool to lake. Tackling Lake Erie next.
 
Into the merky waters Coach Gary and I went.
 
Swallowed by the vastness it was a much different swim.
 
But in the end, the goal was completed.
 
Fast forward to present day.
 
There is no Braxton.
 
"Just growing up and thinking the ifs. What if he was here, what we could have did...The good or bad." said Branton Whiting.
 
No one can change what happened.
 
"What do you see when you look at that photo?" ssked Ricks.
 
"Two loving brothers," said Branton Whiting. "He's still alive through me."
 
But what people can change is their mindset about learning to swim.
 
In honor of Braxton Whiting NewsChannel5 has partnered with the YMCA of Greater Cleveland to offer kids in our community swimming scholarships.
 
Five free lessons for kids classified as at-risk.
 
Also this weekend, Martiza Correria, the first African American woman to make the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team will be at the North Royalton YMCA from 9:00 a.m until 10:00 a.m.
 
It is part of USA Make a Splash, an organization committed to teaching at-risk children how to swim.
 
For free swim lessons contact Gary Guzy at 216-390-9554.