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Community divided on how to best protect children from drowning

Jeremy Pasker | 6/26/2014, 3:39 p.m.
Parents of the two children who drowned over the weekend in the Bronx’s Starlight Park pleaded with the city for ...
State Sen. the Rev. Ruben Diaz(L) and the Rev. Joel Bauza(R) console Eva and Robert Villa, the parents of one of the children who drowned at Starlight Park. Photo by Jeremy Pasker

Parents of the two children who drowned over the weekend in the Bronx’s Starlight Park pleaded with the city for more strident protections, while community organizers preached personal responsibility.

“Folks should have access to the river,” said David R. Shuffler Jr., executive director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a Bronx organization deeply invested in environmental issues. “I don’t think eight miles of fence is possible.”

Shuffler said that he is aware of the seriousness of what occurred and isn’t blind to both families’ grief, but that he sees a difference between cause and correlation. However, those atop the podium addressing the press had an alternate message. They felt a fence would help reverse the tide of preventable deaths in the future.

Thirteen­‑year‑old cousins Erickson Villa and Wellington Gabin both drowned Saturday at Starlight Park. Contrary to news reports, the parents affirmed during the press conference that the two boys knew how to swim.

Family spokesman the Rev. Joel Bauza said that the family isn’t out to pass around blame. He insisted that their sole motive is to find answers and to be heard.

“We want support to close the park until [a fence is up],” Robert Villa, Erickson’s father, stated stoically through an interpreter.

Afterward, Bronx Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo spoke on behalf of the family, acknowledging that a reaction should be prompt. “We have to go to the governor’s office and claim to him that he has to develop a committee to review this case and review the problem in this park,” said Arroyo.

Eve Villa, Erickson’s mother, inconsolably sobbed as she addressed reporters.

“I wish it was me and not my son,” she said while being held by friends in front of cameras. “Please put up a fence.”

She went on to say, “Imagine your children—a small child cannot read even if there are a thousand signs.”

But according to a few of the community organizers in attendance, building a fence would prevent others in the neighborhood from enjoying what so many volunteers have petitioned to rebuild.

Since its completion, the park’s amenities, especially the lake, have been a source of summer recreation and camaraderie. The Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice donate canoes and kayaks for the annual summer kickoff flotilla (Spanish for fleet), where families relay race down the river.

Gail Gadsden, who advocates for resources as vice chair of the borough’s Community Education Committee, recommended an alternative to putting up a fence as well.

“I live near Catona Park, where there are Rangers,” she said. “There should be more over here as well. Are we that cheap that we don’t value lives?”

Nilka Martell, founder and co-director of Getting Involved Virginia Avenue Efforts, explained how the waterways educate urban communities about nature in ways that they wouldn’t get otherwise.

“The docks are here to promote use,” she said.