MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Debbie Hess held a colorful children’s book in her hands and quizzed her preschool students about the lesson it had inside.

At first they played coy, until Haylie Rowlands, of Cape May Court House, spoke up.

“To not go in the pool without a grown-up,” she said.

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She was right. The book was called “Josh the Baby Otter” and was given to all the students in the preschool to teach them to be wary of water without adult supervision. This was the second year that students from the Middle Township High School raised money to purchase the books and hand them out.

“But what if you have your swimmies on? Is it OK then?” Hess asked.

“Nooo,” they all replied in unison.

“OK, what if your ball goes in the water?” she asked again.

“Ask an adult to get it,” answered Layla Hayward.

The book was created and named after Joshua Collingsworth, a 2-year-old from Nebraska who wandered into the backyard pool during a family get-together. His parents found him floating and unconscious shortly after, and he died a few days later in the hospital.

The Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation created the book to teach other children to be safe around water, something important not only along the coast but anywhere there’s a pool.

“With all these bays and pools and the ocean, we're so surrounded by water, and if we save one life it makes this all worth it, so we're making this an annual event,” said John Decker, co-adviser to the high school’s Interact Club, the teenage extension of Rotary International, which organizes community service events.

Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 4, behind only birth defects. It is also the most common way young children die from unintentional injury, accounting for a third of all such deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hess said that prior to the books being distributed there were not any formal lessons on water safety for the preschool students, who are mostly 4 years old or turning 5.

“This is about the age when they’re learning how the swim,” she said, although they learn at different times depending on their access to water and lessons.

There was a districtwide dress-down day earlier this year that raised money to purchase the books. On April 26, when the books were given out, high school students went to the preschool to hand out the books, and one of them was dressed in the Josh the Baby Otter costume.

“They were giving him high fives and hugs,” Hess said.

The book tells the story of an otter being born and instructed how to swim, and also being advised to never go near water without an adult. The end of the book includes a pledge that reads, “I promise to be a good son or daughter, I promise to get an adult when I go near the water, this will keep me safe like Josh the baby otter.”

Each child received a book and brought it home with them. On a recent afternoon, as Hess held a copy she keeps in her classroom at Middle Township Elementary No. 1, she asked them if they had read the book with their parents when they got home.

Again, they didn’t say much, but Mya Seldon excitedly spoke up this time. She could hardly contain her excitement as she described playing the book’s accompanying singalong CD in the car with her aunt.

“She was singing it crazy,” Seldon said and laughed. “She really liked it.”

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