SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Deonco Howard was six years old when he tragically drowned in the Kanawha River, but his mother won’t stop until other kids and their families are more equipped to never have to face a similar fate.
That’s why Joniesha Johnson is partnering with the City of South Charleston, the South Charleston Community Center and the Regional American Red Cross to help prevent any further child drowning from occurring. The initiative is called Swimming with Deonco, and a press conference was held for the new program Tuesday at the community center.
“I figured that if we got the awareness out there and we got the knowledge out there, then I feel like parents would start bringing their children and their own selves, it’s a lot of adults that can’t swim too,” Johnson said Tuesday.
Howard drowned at the Shawnee Boat Ramp in Dunbar on June 18, 2022 during a fishing trip with his aunt, Michelle Godsey, who also drowned that day.
That summer before the tragedy, Howard joined the South Charleston Swim Team, as Johnson said Deonco loved to swim, and he was a very active, happy child.
Following the tragic occurrence, Johnson was inspired to turn it into something positive.
“I remember sitting in my living room just trying to figure out how to turn this tragedy around for me and my family, but not just not family but the community too,” Johnson said. “A lot of kids knew Deonco, a lot of kids are hurting behind what happened with Deonco.”
She then became inspired to make swimming lessons accessible to every child and their family. After working with the city and the community center to organize the initiative, she decided to call it Swimming with Deonco.
The program will offer free swimming lessons to children at the South Charleston Community Center starting July 10. The only requirement to sign kids up for the program is a medical card.
Johnson has a lot of hope for the program’s impact on the community and for her son’s memory to help be a part of that.
“I’m hoping that it leaves a positive impact, I’m hoping that people will take advantage of the opportunity, I’m also hoping that it will eventually grow over the years, and I’m hoping that Deonco will be able to save many lives through this program,” Johnson said.
The regional Red Cross is partnering with the effort, as swimming competency and drowning prevention and awareness are major aspects of what they promote.
According to the Red Cross, an average of ten people die in the U.S from unintentional drowning.
Red Cross Regional CEO Erica Mani was in attendance at the press conference Tuesday and she said it’s especially important to learn to swim at a young age.
“One of the most common ways children unintentional die in accidents is sadly drowning accidents, so learning to swim by age 4 cuts that drowning risk dramatically down, so it’s more than in half,” she said.
As the summer persists, Mani said now has never been a better time to learn to swim.
“That is why it is so important right now, as families and children are out there enjoying local pools, the river, the lake, now is the time for children and adults alike know how to swim and know how to be safe around the water.
Along with partnering for this program, the Red Cross offers many free or reduced-cost learn to swim options as well as swimming safety tips on their website.
Johnson said her son Deonco would have loved to be a part of the program, and it will be a way for him to live on through the joy it brings to other children.
“Everyone that knew Deonco knew that Deonco was a happy kid, and wherever you would see Deonco at he was always smiling, he left a very, very big impact on adults and children.”
To get started with signing a child up for the program, people can call the South Charleston Community Center at (304)744-4731.