Going for the gold – Medal efforts for kids at ZAC Camp

At the closing ceremony for this year’s ZAC Camp all participants from the Boys & Girls Club got medals and some, like seven-year-old Amanda Villanueva, got a hug from Zeke the polar bear. More images will be online Friday at Greenwich-post.com. — John Ferris Robben photo

At the closing ceremony for this year’s ZAC Camp all participants from the Boys & Girls Club got medals and some, like seven-year-old Amanda Villanueva, got a hug from Zeke the polar bear. More images will be online Friday at Greenwich-post.com.
— John Ferris Robben photo

The next time Olympic medals will be handed out for competitive swimming is more than three years away, but last week the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich got a jump on things and there were gold medals aplenty for the kids successfully completing ZAC Camp.

This year during the town’s April break from school, 100 members of the Greenwich club and 20 members of the Boys & Girls Club of Stamford spent Monday through Thursday mornings in the pool in Greenwich as well as in the classroom learning invaluable water safety tips. The lessons particularly focused on what was called the “ABCs and Ds” of water safety. A is for adult supervision, B is for barriers, C is for classes, and D is for drain safety, which ZAC Foundation co-founder Karen Cohn says is the main reason this is happening.

Ms. Cohn and her husband, Brian, founded the ZAC Foundation after the 2007 death of their six-year-old son Zachary, who drowned in a backyard swimming pool after his arm became trapped in a drain. ZAC Camp has been an annual spring program where kids from Greenwich and Stamford get time in the pool and lessons about water safety. This is the third year for ZAC Camp at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, and while the program started in town it certainly isn’t ending there.

In March the foundation officially announced its national collaboration with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to take the camps national. This year, in addition to Greenwich, there will be ZAC camps in Green Bay, Wis., Mobile, Ala., Fort Riley, Kan., Ontario, Ore., San Antonio, Texas, Chicago, Ill., Naples, Fla., Pasadena, Calif., and Billerica, Mass.

Before the closing ceremonies began, Ms. Cohn spoke to the Post about the growth in the program.

“It’s so exciting for us to see how many families and children we are affecting throughout the country,” Ms. Cohn said. “We hope that we are making many children and families water-safe, and that makes us really happy, because it’s us keeping Zachary’s memory alive.”

Bob DeAngelo, executive director for the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, told the Post that he loves to see the excitement in the eyes of the participants each year at the ZAC Camp.

“I think this makes a huge impact on them,” Mr. DeAngelo said. “I think it makes them more comfortable and safe in the water, and I also think it shows them the first responders and everyone in the community who are here to help them. They learn how to call for help, and that they can trust that it’s on the way. That has a really good community feel to it, and when we get the kids upstairs in the classroom, it’s a good chance for them to talk about their own fears. It’s much more than a swim lesson.”

Ms. Cohn agreed, saying that the camp has a visible impact on the participants.

“It is so rewarding to see this,” Ms. Cohn said. “They’re so sweet and there’s so much excitement to get in the pool and show off what they learned. We’re doing this because of water safety, and it’s great to see those lessons take hold. We want to reach children and families about this all over the country, and we hope that the kids who learn the lessons here will tell their friends who were not able to attend the camps.”

She later added, “I feel extremely happy that we have had the chance to touch these children’s lives in many ways by teaching them about water safety, maybe giving them more comfort in the water, as well as have them develop relationships with first responders they might not have had previously.”

The presence of the Greenwich Police Department, Greenwich Fire Department and Greenwich Emergency Medical Services was again a major part of the camp. Emergency vehicles were brought in for some hands-on exploration by the kids, and there were also talks from the police and firefighters to teach them that they’re not so scary and that they can be relied upon when help is needed. Mr. DeAngelo said he believes kids can be intimidated by first responders and that this helps demystify them.

The picture book The Polar Bear Who Couldn’t Wouldn’t Swim was a new addition to the curriculum this year as kids read the story and learned about Zeke the polar bear who doesn’t know how to swim and fears the water as a result. The story follows his journey of overcoming that fear and learning about water safety; it was written by the Cohns and illustrated by Brent Beck. This has special significance to them since their son’s favorite animal was the polar bear, and this year’s closing ceremony featured a special appearance by Zeke, who was quickly mobbed by the kids.

As he has in years past, Rowdy Gaines, an NBC sports analyst, three-time Olympic gold medalist and member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, participated in the closing ceremonies, helping hand out the medals to the kids and speaking to them, not just about safety but also about having the courage to pursue their dreams.

“I didn’t start swimming until I was 17 and I was a junior in high school,” Mr. Gaines said. “The reason I started so late is that I failed at so many other sports. I went out for football, baseball, basketball, golf, and tennis, and I got cut in all of them. But I never gave up, and you guys can never give up on your dreams. My belief is that every single one of you has a gift inside you and you were put on this Earth to share it.”

Mr. Gaines brought along his gold medal from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and after the ceremony autographed the kids’ medals.

“Rowdy is a very caring and inspirational person who really enjoys working with the children,” Ms. Cohn said. “He has agreed to take on a bigger role with the foundation as we expand, and he will be participating in our additional camps as well.”

To show support for the growing presence of ZAC camps, Frank Sanchez, the vice president of entertainment and alumni development for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, attended the closing ceremony and said the “spirit of the room” showed what this was all about.

“We have a very similar mission,” Mr. Sanchez said. “We want kids to be safe. We want kids to be healthy. We want them to have long lives that give back. … That’s what this program is about. It’s about combining two great organizations who want to make young people be great.”


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