Howard’s Hope is a Murfreesboro-based charity founded in 2014 by two parents, Steve and Stacy Reeves, that funds free aquatic safety lessons and water survival training for children in economically challenged households. The Reeves were motivated to start the charity after a horrific event forever changed their lives and perspectives.
“Howard’s Hope was started as a result of my wife and I witnessing the near-drowning of our daughter,” Steve said. “We were fortunate in that we did not lose her that day, but, so many times, that’s not the case. When we looked into this, we found that it was really a problem.”
According to research conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011, drowning was the No. 1 cause of accidental death for children who are 1 to 4 years old. According to the CDC’s website, there was an average of 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings between 2005 and 2014 and about one in five people who die from drowning are children who are 14 years old and younger.
“Once we saw how big the problem was, we had to do something about it,” Steve said.
In the charity's first months, Howard’s Hope was funded by royalty checks that Steve received from a book he had written, The 1980 Gray Murders. The book, published in 2012, is a true-crime story centered on the murder of a boy named Howard who was killed by a previous friend of Steve’s.
“While I was writing the book, I became friends with Howard’s mother who was a survivor of the attack,” Steve said. “Through that friendship, we developed a bond. So, when I started the organization, I told her I was going to name it after her son.”
The main goal of Howard’s Hope is to assist in reducing the drowning rate of children, and the nonprofit works toward that goal by funding the “Flying Fish” program. The program is “needs-based” and benefits children who would otherwise not have access to pools or swimming lessons. According to Steve, all children in the Flying Fish program receive 6 to 8 hours of in-pool swimming instruction by certified water safety instructors and classroom instruction on aquatic safety rules.
“Somewhere around 97 percent of our children (in the Flying Fish program) actually obtain or exceed level one swim skills,” Steve said. “So, they come out of the program better than what we hoped for. … We are reducing the number of potential juvenile drownings in Tennessee”
The first swim class that Howard’s Hope funded was in the summer of 2015 and only included four children. Within that same summer, 33 children were able to be a part of the Flying Fish program. In 2016, Howard’s Hope expanded further with 137 children in Murfreesboro, Shelbyville and Tullahoma receiving free swimming instruction. The number participating in the Flying Fish program in 2017 will fall somewhere between 500 and 600 children living in Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi.
The areas where Howard’s Hope funds swimming lessons has also increased. The Flying Fish program is currently held in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Clarksville, Shelbyville and Murfreesboro.
“In two years, we went from four kids to almost 500,” Steve said.
Despite the charity's success, neither Steve nor Stacy had any experience in charitable works or nonprofits before starting Howard’s Hope. Stacy is a retired flight attendant and Steve a retired airline pilot.
“I went in very blind. I had no idea how to run a nonprofit, but we have since learned a lot of that,” Steve said.
Through the charity's rapid expansion, Howard’s Hope has partnered with Nashville Parks and Recreation, Chattanooga Parks and Recreation, Middle Tennessee State University and more institutions and organizations to help provide additional resources for children in the program.
The majority of funding that supports the swimming lessons is currently provided by the Blue Cross / Blue Shield Tennessee Health Foundation, but Howard’s Hope also receives support from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, corporate donors and private donations from citizens all over the country.
With Howard’s Hope currently reaching hundreds of children, Steve stated that the public response has been very encouraging.
“We have received nothing but positive feedback from the parents,” Steve said. “I received an email the other day from a mother of a couple of young boys. She said that these boys didn’t even like water being splashed in their face, and at the end of the two-week course, the boys are jumping off the low diving board. She said that the transformation has just been magical. She said that with her job and income, there was no way that she would have found the money in her budget to pay for those swim lessons on her own.”
According to Steve, all of the children that have gone through the program are able to self rescue at the minimum and most achieve level one swim skills.
“We do like to believe that we are making a big difference in the number of potential juvenile drowning victims," Steve said.
Steve and Stacy have plans to further expand the program and to assist more children who will benefit from free swim instruction.
Steve shared, “Our initial plan was, in five years, to be where we are now. So, we are two to three years ahead of schedule. Our seven-year plan was to be a regional program. Right now, we are looking at 60 applicants in Arkansas and Mississippi, and we are looking to expand into those states.
Steve also stated that a program for parents to receive CPR training at no cost is in the works.
“One of the things that people don’t realize is that there are a lot of children that don’t know how to swim,” Steve said. “There is a generational fear of water that is passed down. What we want to do is break that cycle. … We are providing a much needed service to people in Tennessee, and we will have to keep on going as far as we can."
Photos courtesy of Howard's Hope.