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Water Safety Heroes

Summer fun often means time in the water. Whatever water activity locals and visitors choose, though, there is one thing they all have in common, and that’s the importance of water safety.

The pandemic has changed much of what we’ve been doing this spring and summer, but people are still swimming, boating, surfing, kayaking, paddleboarding and playing in the waves. One local non-profit group has been working hard to find new ways to keep pushing its very important mission — preventing drowning through education and awareness.

Kelly and Justin Helbig are the couple behind the Jack Helbig Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit organization created out of personal tragedy. After losing one of their sons in a drowning accident, the Helbigs were determined to educate other families. Melanie Roberts signed on as President earlier this year, and said she is amazed by the passion of everyone involved and with the caliber of resources the Helbigs have brought together to share their message.

“The whole Helbig family took this tragedy and made it something that was not about them,” she said.

Typically, Roberts said they would start presenting programs on water safety to schoolchildren in late March or April. Like so many businesses and groups, though, the Foundation had to switch gears when the pandemic shut down normal operations. Also like many other groups, they navigated Zoom and were able to share the “Josh the Baby Otter” swim safety program with a Montessori school in Wilmington. They donated 80 “Josh the Baby Otter” books to the school, and the teacher they worked with will now be a liaison for them, promoting their program and helping them share it in other schools.

Though this year’s programming also went virtual, Kelly still served as a panelist at the National Drowning Prevention Alliance conference.

“We were able to reach out to many families that way,” Melanie said.

The Foundation also took its message to a much larger platform, with billboard rentals on U.S.17 at two locations — one near the intersection with N.C. 211, and one near the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. The signs promote three main messages: Know the Rip Current Risk - Save a Life; Obey the Flags; and Wear a Life Vest.

Gene Helbig, Justin’s dad and Foundation Treasurer, said it is great to know their message is being received, and he credits that to Kelly and Melanie and the work they do in getting the word out on social media. He said they recently heard from a grateful mom who had shared their information on rip currents with her family before they headed out to the beach. Her son got caught in a rip current that day but remembered what he’d heard that morning and was able to get himself out of the current.

“That’s powerful to me,” he said. “It means people are reading it.”

Social media has also been an important vehicle for reaching out with the Foundation’s message. Melanie said that one of the group’s Facebook posts on drowning had 13,000 views. It talked about how drowning doesn’t look like Hollywood often portrays it.

“If just one of those saves a life, then we have done our mission,” she said.

Going forward, they have other big plans. The Foundation already partners with the Rotary Club to purchase the books used for education. Melanie said they’re also collaborating with other local organizations that focus on beach safety, particularly the dangers of rip currents. They hope to also sponsor floats at beach entrances.

“We have funding for that type of thing,” Melanie said. She added that a lot of times when someone is pulled out into a rip current, it’s not one life that’s lost, but two, including the rescuer. “Taking a float with you makes the survival rate so much higher,” she said.

The Foundation is always looking for more volunteers, and Gene said that the Board would love to have a pediatrician join its ranks. Donations can also always be made through the website or Facebook.

They’ll also continue with their social media campaigns (find Jack Helbig Memorial Foundation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). They have leased office space in Boiling Spring Lakes, thanks to Langbeen Builders, which donated a portion of rent as a Foundation sponsor. A new website was recently launched,, and they’ll be offering safety stop signs for purchase to use at lakes, pools and anywhere children need to be reminded to have an adult with them before going in the water.

‘It’s really about having multiple barriers around water, because one barrier is not enough, and about having life jackets,” Melanie said.

The website also has a list of private lesson swim teachers in the area. The Foundation even has funding available to help children take swim lessons if their families can’t afford it on their own. The group will also continue looking for ways to help all Brunswick County schoolchildren learn how to swim.

“One of our long term goals is to have every Kindergarten student in swimming lessons,” Gene said.

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