In the wake of tragedy, an annual game helps hundreds

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Nicci Roberts (center left) and Shenae Thompson (center right) joke around during a swimming class at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Nicetown.

Six years ago, a strong, sudden rip current pulled Josias Sterling out to sea. The 19-year-old Olney native, son of Haitian immigrants, had never learned to swim.

The loss of "a good son," a St. Joseph's Prep alumnus and Temple University student, a rugby player whose sunny joy seemed to draw everyone to him, still sears.

On Friday, after the Thanksgiving dishes are washed and the leftovers stored, hundreds will gather in his memory, as they do every year, on the rugby pitch that brought him so much happiness.

For Josias, a legion of family, friends, and supporters will scrimmage at Edgely Field in Fairmount Park at noon, a friendly rugby tournament with a serious purpose: saving lives.

The event funds the Josias A. Sterling Aquatic Education Program, which teaches water safety to children and adults who live in the city, a group that too often never learns to swim.

To date, 500 have become comfortable in the water because of the gregarious young man with a serious predilection for apple pie.

"It doesn't bring Josias back to me, but if good can be done in his memory, that's a good thing," said his mother, Marie, who with her husband raised six children to value education, family, and faith above all else. Even now, she chokes back tears when talking about her lost son.

"I'm glad," she said, "people are getting a chance to swim."

On a cool Saturday morning, Salvation Army Kroc Center swim instructor Jimmy DeLeon welcomed an eager preschooler in a pink bathing suit for what are known as "Josias Lessons."

"Are you ready to have some fun?" DeLeon asked the girl, then led her to one of the pristine pools housed inside the Nicetown center's family water park.

Soon, they were off into the water, DeLeon guiding her and a handful of other Philadelphia kids in the business of becoming confident in the water.

"This is about lifesaving," DeLeon said of the lessons, offered to children ages 3 through 12 and adults over 18. "This is a very important program."

The dangers of drowning are real: 10 people drown every day in the United States, and officials estimate that 70 percent of African American and 60 percent of Latino children have low or no swimming ability.

The 12-week lessons have grown in popularity. On sign-up days, lines stretch nearly into the lobby of the gleaming Kroc Center.

Watching that is a pleasure for Bridget Brown, the Kroc Center's aquatics manager. Because of the Josias Lessons, she's seen people move from being afraid of the water to swimming in the Olympic pool.

"It's just a breath of fresh air," Brown said. "People are learning, and their lives are changed forever."

Rosalinda Harris heard about the lessons from a relative. She thought they would be perfect for her 11-year-old, Chance Nelson, who was born with half a heart and is prohibited from participating in contact sports. She thought about swimming before the Josias Lessons, but money is tight, and she didn't have the cash to cover lessons.

"I can't swim," said Harris, who lives in North Philadelphia, "but I didn't want him to grow up not knowing."

Chance has really taken to the lessons.

"Every Friday night, he gets his stuff ready for the next day," said Harris, 34. Now she wants to sign up for swim classes herself.

Doris Rivers remembers the day she signed up for the lessons: Sept. 19. Rivers, 56, was "deathly afraid" of water, but when she heard an announcement at church that she could learn to swim free, she felt moved to try.

Now Rivers, her daughter, and two grandchildren can no longer be categorized as nonswimmers.

"My grandson was so afraid of the water," said Rivers, of East Oak Lane. "I looked at him on Friday night, and he was swimming. I thought, isn't this amazing?"

Rivers' own lifelong phobia is no more.

"I'm not doing freestyle all the way across the pool, but when I mess up, I'm not afraid to get back in there," she said.

In the painful days after Josias drowned, Bill Gregory knew he had to do something.

Gregory coached Josias on the pitch at the Prep, but Josias was more than a member of the team: He was also best friends with Gregory's son, Ryan, and was a frequent visitor to the Gregory home, almost a member of the family.

The day before they were due to play in a summer tournament, Josias and Ryan were tossing a rugby ball in knee-deep water in Ocean City, N.J., when the rip current hit. Ryan, who could swim, escaped.

The Sterling family was devastated. So were friends, including Josias' rugby brothers from the Class of 2008 and his teammates at Temple University, where he was about to start his senior year, fresh off being named the team's rookie of the year.

Organizing a rugby tournament - the Josias A. Sterling "Apple Pie 7s," named for Josias' favorite dessert - was a natural. And Marie Sterling said she wanted any funds raised to go to teach city dwellers to swim.

Seven years in, the tournament has mushroomed from a handful of teams on a single field to 25 high school, college, and club teams scrumming on four fields.

On Saturday, Gregory was in the thick of preparations for the tournament he still runs. But he paused from the last-minute details to watch the goings-on at the Kroc Center pool where DeLeon gave lessons.

Josias, Gregory said, tearing up, would love it: the busy pool, the buzz, the kids soaking it all up.

"I just know he's happy," he said. "Josias is smiling down, just saying, 'That's cool, that's the right thing to do.' He was an open, joyful book, more than any of the kids or adults I've ever known."

Gregory still talks to Josias, he said, more so in the days leading up to the tournament.

"I say, 'Josias, I'm going to make you drop and give me 10 if it rains,' " Gregory said, smiling. "I say, 'Your job is to make sure we get good weather.' "

Friday's forecast: temperatures topping 60 degrees, and sunny.

kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146@newskag

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For More Information

The next signups for the Josias A. Sterling Aquatic Education Program will be at the Salvation Army Kroc Community Center, 4200 Wissahickon Ave., on Dec. 19 from 10 a.m. to noon.

For more information about the Josias A. Sterling Memorial Fund, go to http://josiassterling.org.