Greenwich-based ZAC Camp again provides water safety training

Stephanie O’Donnell, education coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, hangs a medal on one of the 100 kids who completed ZAC Camp water safety training. Below, Police Chief James Heavey talks with some of the young campers. —Ken Borsuk

Stephanie O’Donnell, education coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, hangs a medal on one of the 100 kids who completed ZAC Camp water safety training. Below, Police Chief James Heavey talks with some of the young campers. —Ken Borsuk

The weather is warming up and with summer on the way, 100 kids in Greenwich and Stamford will know a lot more about water safety, thanks to the annual ZAC Camp.

The camp, which, as always, took place at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, was a four-day lesson in water safety for children made possible by the ZAC Foundation, which was formed by Greenwich residents Karen and Brian Cohn. The couple’s six-year-old son, Zachary, drowned in 2007 when his arm became caught in an underwater drain in a swimming pool and he couldn’t free himself. Since then the couple has made it a priority to make pools safer and also to make sure children know how to swim — and how to swim safely.

The camps have been held in town for the past four years and are expanding nationally. Last year the camp grew from a Greenwich-only event to 10 locations through a partnership with the national Boys & Girls Club, and this past year that number will grow again, to camps in 25 cities across the country, an expansion that necessitated a recent training camp for Boys & Girls Club instructors who came to Greenwich earlier this spring to make sure they were up to speed on the camp’s lessons.

“It’s amazing to see this growth,” Ms. Cohn told the Post last week. “For me it’s very healing to have the opportunity to teach all these children about being safe in and around water. Zachary was a great swimmer and as parents we thought we did what we were supposed to do to protect him in the water. But we had no idea about the dangers lurking in our own backyard pool. That’s why we created the foundation so we could teach children water safety and teach their families how to protect their children. We didn’t know there were these dangers in the pool right in our back yard, and it’s important for other parents to learn and for children to know how to be safe.”

In Greenwich, the camp took place last week during Greenwich and Stamford’s spring break for the public schools, and 100 kids came to learn about safe swimming, both in the pool and in a classroom setting where they were taught “the ABCDs of water safety.” That lesson covers A, as in having an adult watching when you’re in the water, B, as in barriers such as fences to keep children out of dangerous water areas like unsupervized pools, C, for safety classes that teach you how to swim, and D, for drains that children should avoid and that parents should make sure are inspected.

The camp began last Monday and culminated in an awards ceremony on Thursday, where each of the participants was given a medal for passing the lessons.

The lessons of the camp are also part of a children’s book written by Ms. Cohn called The Polar Bear Who Couldn’t, Wouldn’t Swim, which was released last year and will come out in a Spanish version this year. Zeke the bear even came to the camp for the medal ceremony (as the kids all received a copy) and proved to be mighty popular, as were the Greenwich first responders, including police divers, who were part of the camp to show children all about police cars, fire trucks and ambulances and how they can help save lives. Representatives from all of the emergency services branches, as well as the Red Cross, were at the medal ceremony, including fire Chief Peter Siecienski.

“I think all of you, come this summer, are going to be so much safer in the water, and we really look forward to having a great summer season in Greenwich,” Chief Siecienski said.

Chief of Police James Heavey, who learned how to swim at the Boys & Girls Club while growing up in Greenwich, said he was proud of all the children for participating and that he hoped they would become big fans of the water, as he is.

Ms. Cohn said what remains most exciting about the camp is seeing children who might be afraid of the water at the beginning of the lessons lose that fear over the course of the week until they’re eager to get in the pool. One of those was seven-year-old Cameron Williams from Riverside. Takeia McAllister, associate development director for the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich, said that he flourished during the lessons, going from not saying anything to being completely engaged and even cheering on other kids in the pool.

“His confidence level boosted up so much from this,” Ms. McAllister said.

The recent training session in town was done to give instructors from clubs across the country the ability to run programs in their cities as successfully as it’s been done in Greenwich the past four years. Ms. Cohn said she received “great feedback” about the training and the chance to hear her story about Zachary’s death and her family’s efforts directly from her.

“When they hear that story personally, they make the connection that what we do is in Zachary’s memory and that it’s very important,” Ms. Cohn said. “Because the very first camp was here in Greenwich and they helped us to evolve and grow the camp into what it is, they really understand how to run it here.”

While Greenwich’s camp typically takes place during spring, the other camps will be held over the course of the summer, going all the way until August. Ms. Cohn said they are eager to see how it goes at this year’s 25 camps and they want to continue their national relationship with the Boys & Girls Club to see about further expansion down the line.

After Zachary’s death, it’s been a long road for the Cohns, who pursued criminal charges in the matter, resulting in a guilty plea from Shoreline Pools Inc. CEO David Lionetti to criminally negligent homicide, because the drain was not properly installed according to established safety protocols.

Ms. Cohn has told the story of her son’s death countless times to make sure the message gets through, even though it’s painful.

“This is what we set out to do,” Ms. Cohn said. “It’s so important that the kids learn the ABCD’s of water safety. So many of them tell me how sorry they are to hear about the loss of Zachary, and since we’re doing this in his memory, it helps our family to be able to do this. It’s absolutely a rewarding time for us.”


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