Clay County woman shares story of near-drowning: 'I thought I was going to die'

Grandmother dedicates 50th birthday to help 50 kids learn to swim

ORANGE PARK, Fla. – A Clay County grandmother, who nearly drowned as a teen, overcame her fear of water and is dedicating her 50th birthday to sponsoring 50 kids for swim lessons at the YMCA.

Ellie Wainwright remembers the day she thought she was going to lose her life. When the mother of four was a young teenager, she was at a family swim and barbecue. Her younger cousin, who couldn't swim, grabbed onto Wainwright for help in the pool. But Wainwright couldn't swim either.

"I was terrified," she said. "I thought I was going to die, and nobody hears you scream. I was at a family barbecue. No one hears you scream underwater."

That frightening experience created a fear of water. And then she had a scare at the pool with her first child, when he was just a toddler.

"My son was 2 years old and fell in the deep end, the very first weekend that we were in our home," she said.

After that scare, Wainwright made sure all of her children took swim lessons at her local YMCA. She wanted them to be safe, and she didn't want to pass on her life-long fear of water to them. 

Those swim lessons paid off. In fact, her daughter, Samantha, is now a YMCA lifeguard and swim instructor. And, her son, Ryan, joined the U.S. Marine Corps, achieving the highest swim qualification in boot camp. 

Wainwright is passing along the importance of swim safety to Kendall, her 8-year-old granddaughter, who knows how to swim and enjoys time together in the same pool Wainwright's own children enjoyed.


And now that she has just turned 50 years old, Wainwright wants to do something significant for others.

"I thought, why not dedicate my 50th birthday to sponsoring 50 kids to learn how to swim at the Y?" she told News4Jax.

It took Wainwright just two months to raise $5,000 -- a birthday wish come true knowing other children will soon be as confident in the water as the children she raised.

Safety Around Water

Channel 4 The Local Station has teamed up with the First Coast YMCA for a Positively Jax campaign to make sure kids in our community are safe around water.  All summer long, your children can be tested for free by the Y's swim experts. If they pass the swim skills test, they get to ring a special bell to symbolize their life-saving achievement. If they need extra help, there are programs available and free lessons for those who qualify. Our goal is to ring that symbolic bell 5,000 times this summer.

Free Swim Weekend: June 22-June 24

To start this summer-long effort, you and your family can take part in a Free Swim Weekend at participating YMCA locations through Sunday. Get your child's skill level tested for free and then spend the day enjoying the pool. Click here to find a participating Y location near you, along with pool hours.

Channel 4 Kickoff Saturday

Saturday, June 23, join News4Jax anchor Joy Purdy starting at 9 a.m. at the Williams YMCA on San Jose Boulevard. She will be there live for a kickoff of the Safety Around Water campaign. You'll be able to get your child's swim skills tested for free, and then at no charge, you and your family can stay for the day and relax at the pool.

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