Gloria Buxton has spent the majority of her life on the expansive shorelines of Lake Erie with her brother William Otis Jordan, known as Billy to everyone who knew him. Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, she recalls memories of growing up on the docks with her family. “My father was a fisherman, so he would always take me and Billy down to the boats and we would ride with him. Our parents were instrumental in making sure we knew how to swim. I’m really thankful for that.”
Despite her positive relationship to water and the activities that come with it, many of those memories are now tinged with sorrow. During the summer of 2022, Gloria’s brother Billy tragically passed away after suffering a heart attack while swimming at the local YMCA. His passing came as an acute shock to Gloria, her family, and their community. In the months since, she has spent a lot of time and energy working through the trauma, pain, and depression.
On the day of his passing, Gloria was helping Billy find his way to the locker room when he looked up at her, clutched her hands and said gently to her, “Gloria, I can find my way.” These words struck her immensely and ultimately inspired the name of her project. I Can Swim My Way is a project dedicated to Billy and his love for the water. It aims to provide free swimming lessons to children in Lorain County who could not otherwise afford them. Gloria sees the project as a way to pass on her brother’s legacy by giving back to their community in Lorain County, and specifically to youth from working class backgrounds. So far her project has raised over $1000 in donations, but she hopes to reach her goal of $2000 by the end of January.
Billy was Gloria’s brother, swimming partner, and closest friend. During childhood, their mother struggled with schizophrenia and their father wasn’t always around due to his struggle with alcoholism. As a result, she and her siblings spent a lot of time with their grandmother who died when Gloria was 13. “I remember being at her funeral when someone came up, tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Gloria, you’re going to have to take care of the family now.’ I had no idea what that meant, but I soon learned.”
Although she was overwhelmed with the task of raising Billy and her other siblings (Pamela M. Carter, Francine and Jack Jordan), Gloria remembers bright spots during this period of their lives. She recalls swimming with Billy at the YMCA as some of her fondest memories. “We called ourselves the fishies. I was fish 2 and he was fish 1, because he was always better than me.”
Over the years, they fell in and out of touch. Billy developed schizophrenia, struggled to access treatment, and spent time living without a home. He was subjected to multiple forms of violence while trying to survive, and eventually returned home to Ohio and Gloria. She welcomed him home and continued to care for him, but he continued to struggle with the trauma of his experiences. Throughout all of it, the water was the place he felt safest, says Gloria. “Whether it was the waters of Lake Erie or the swimming pool of the fitness center, the water was one space Billy felt most comfortable.”
With I Can Swim My Way, Gloria wants to provide children in Lorain County with the same experiences Billy had. “Swimming was a joy to Billy. It was healing for him and a happy place. When starting this project, I was thinking about all the children that don’t know how to swim or don’t have access to safe places to do so.”
Accessing a safe place to swim can be particularly difficult in Lorain. According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, there were 73 Great Lakes Drownings in 2022 alone. Lake Erie’s current can be fatally strong, especially for people who don’t know how to swim. Global heat waves will only make the situation worse, according to Gloria. “As climate change continues to get worse, temperatures will get hotter and force people to the water to cool down, but what if those people don’t know how to swim? That’s a really dangerous situation!”
In addition to keeping the community safe, Gloria hopes the project will bring children and families together as they learn to embrace the water, instead of fearing it. She wants people to open themselves to the power of the water, its spiritual capacities, and its healing properties. Her own relationship to water has been fraught since Billy’s passing, but through the water she has found healing in her grief. “I want to pass this love for the water down to future generations so they can understand and have the same relationship with it that I have.”
Leading projects and bringing communities together aren’t foreign concepts to Gloria, as she has plenty of experience in both. Prior to this project, she successfully funded Arts in the Park, a program that provides art supplies and classes for children in the surrounding parks of Gloria’s county. She believes strongly in the power of fundraising to make change, saying “I tell everyone I know with a powerful idea to start raising funds and see that idea through to the end! You have the power to do it, don’t wait!”