The family that couldn’t, wouldn’t ignore water safety

p1 polar bear book A 2.7-3Sometimes triumph rises from tragedy, as is the case for town couple Karen and Brian Cohn, the founders of the ZAC Foundation, who recently released their first water safety book The Polar Bear Who Couldn’t, Wouldn’t Swim.

The couple lost their six-year-old son, Zac, after he became entrapped by a powerful pump drain in the family’s swimming pool in 2007. While coping with the tragedy, Ms. and Mr. Cohn established the ZAC Foundation, an organization dedicated to water safety advocacy and education that holds swimming camps for children to help ensure that other parents never had to lose a child to drowning.

Expanding their mission, the couple teamed up with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America this past spring in a national water safety education partnership that will bring the foundation’s award-winning water safety programs — ZAC Camps — to Boys & Girls Clubs across the country. This is an extension of a very popular program that’s been held in Greenwich for several years and has been credited with increasing awareness of water safety and getting kids to conquer their fears of swimming.

Now, the Cohns have taken their water safety advocacy one step further with a book targeted at children ages five to nine, but helpful to children and parents of all ages, that educates youngsters on the “ABC and Ds” of water safety, which teach the importance of adult supervision, barriers, classes and drain safety.

In an interview with the Post, Ms. Cohn said it was a hallmark of the ZAC Foundation to teach children drain safety, which was one of the reasons she and her husband wrote The Polar Bear Who Couldn’t, Wouldn’t Swim. Education on drain safety is virtually non-existent and it’s a vital part of water safety, she said. Another motivation for writing the book, she added, was to provide water safety education to those additional children and parents who might not be reached through ZAC Camps.

Even for ZAC Camp participants, however, the book will prove useful as the couple plans to give each camper a copy to take home and share with their parents, Ms. Cohn said. And, using the book’s animal characters as a teaching tool, the camp curriculum has been updated to include water safety education featuring these characters to help young participants become more engaged in the lesson. In fact, Zeke the polar bear, the book’s main character, who has become the ZAC Camps’ mascot, will make an appearance at each camp session, she said.

The Polar Bear Who Couldn’t, Wouldn’t Swim follows the journey of Zeke, who has a fear of swimming and leaves his family to find other animals who do not swim. In the end, Zeke discovers that animals like Parker the penguin, Hanna the hippo and even Elliot the elephant all swim and that he too could swim safely using the ABC and Ds of water safety, while simultaneously learning to face his fears — a lesson any child can relate to, Ms. Cohn said.

The Cohns chose to use a polar bear as the book’s main character because “Zac is the inspiration for everything we do,” Ms. Cohn said, adding that her son’s favorite stuffed animal was a polar bear that never left his side.

p1 polar bear book B 3.7-3Although the lessons children learn from the book are derived from the story’s text, the accompanying illustrations are also crucial to helping not only engage them in the story but to drive home those lessons, Ms. Cohn said. The book’s illustrator, Brent Beck, was “amazing to work with” and added some unique features to the book such as a nameless frog who may be spotted throughout the book, similar to the Where’s Waldo concept, if one looks carefully, she said.

Even parents can take something away from The Polar Bear Who Couldn’t, Wouldn’t Swim, much like the ZAC Camps aim to educate both children and their parents on water safety, Ms. Cohn said. It’s vital for adults to be aware that no child should ever swim without adult supervision, and that that supervision should be foolproof, she said. The most important thing for adults to remember, she added, is that lifeguards at pools and beaches will never watch your child as closely as you do.

Parents need to remember that reading a book or checking your text messages by the pool does not count as supervising your child and a lifeguard is not someone that should be counted on alone, Ms. Cohn said. Even if a child knows how to swim well, a parent should never let down his or her guard, she added.

The country’s drowning statistics are staggering and a reminder of the importance of water safety education, Ms. Cohn said. Ten people, of all ages, drown every single day, she said. And although car accidents used to be the leading cause of accidental death in children ages one to five, drowning has moved to the number one spot. For children ages five to 14, the statistics are similar, Ms. Cohn said. And with the Fourth of July holiday here, it is perhaps the most important time of year to remind children and parents to be safe and cautious when it comes to swimming, she said.

Given the ZAC Foundation’s dedication to water safety advocacy, it comes as little surprise that Ms. Cohn recently accepted the President’s Council Award on behalf of the organization. According to Ms. Cohn, the award is presented by a panel of fitness professionals, chefs and physicians who are appointed by the president of the United States as a form of encouraging physical fitness, nutrition and overall healthy lifestyles in the country.

Popular athletes Drew Brees, of the New Orleans Saints, and Dominique Dawes, a retired artistic gymnast, were co-chairs of the President’s Council this year and had the option of presenting awards to 50 people in the country. Only 34 were chosen and Ms. Cohn and the ZAC Foundation were one of them, Ms. Cohn said, adding that she was honored to be recognized. The award, she said, will serve as a platform to continue to promote water safety in America.

The Polar Bear Who Couldn’t, Wouldn’t Swim is available for purchase on the ZAC Foundation website at The site offers a discount on the book by using the coupon code “watersafety” at checkout. The book is also available on and All book proceeds go to support the ZAC Foundation’s commitment to advancing water safety programming nationally.


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