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updated: 6/15/2012 12:15 PM

Foundation encourages water safety in son's memory

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  • Nieve Heslan works with Luis Reyes, 6, at the first day of camp at the Wheeling Park District.

       Nieve Heslan works with Luis Reyes, 6, at the first day of camp at the Wheeling Park District.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • A photo of Zachary Cohn is on the poster for the ZAC Foundation at the water safety camp in Wheeling.

       A photo of Zachary Cohn is on the poster for the ZAC Foundation at the water safety camp in Wheeling.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Brian and Karen Cohn talk with Wheeling Park District Director Jan Buchs at the opening day of swim camp.

       Brian and Karen Cohn talk with Wheeling Park District Director Jan Buchs at the opening day of swim camp.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Martin Densleo teaches Ashley De La Rosa how to relax while floating.

       Martin Densleo teaches Ashley De La Rosa how to relax while floating.
    Photos by Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Karen and Brian Cohn started the ZAC Foundation to promote water safety.

      Karen and Brian Cohn started the ZAC Foundation to promote water safety.

  • Jenna Cohn, whose brother, Zachary, died in a pool drain accident, helps Perla Maria Saldivar into the Wheeling pool.

       Jenna Cohn, whose brother, Zachary, died in a pool drain accident, helps Perla Maria Saldivar into the Wheeling pool.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Zach Cohn, age 6.

      Zach Cohn, age 6.
    Courtesy of The ZAC Foundation

  • Emily Najera has fun learning to kick, with Blake Gallivan at the first day of water safety camp.

       Emily Najera has fun learning to kick, with Blake Gallivan at the first day of water safety camp.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Video: ZAC water safety camp

 
 

Zach Cohn loved to swim. He adored the color blue, and the pool was one of his favorite places to be, which made his death -- drowning after being caught in a drain in his backyard pool -- all the more shocking and devastating for his family.


Zach was only 6 when he died in July 2007. Now his legacy is in the hands of his parents, who are trying to improve pool standards and teach children and families around the country about the urgency of water safety.

"He was a very good swimmer. We had no idea you could become entrapped like that," said his mother, Karen Cohn. "We want to educate others because we don't want this tragedy to happen to anyone else."

The ZAC Foundation, named for Zachary Archer Cohn, was started by Karen and Brian Cohn as a water safety advocacy and education nonprofit. Last year, the group offered the first ZAC Camp, a weeklong camp focusing on water safety for kids in their home state of Connecticut. This summer, it expanded to four other locations around the country.

Wheeling is holding the first ZAC Camp in Illinois this week, during which more than 100 6- to 9-year-olds were invited to come for free. It ends today with medals and a closing ceremony hosted by Olympic gold medalist and NBC Sports commentator Rowdy Gaines.

The camp, held at the Wheeling Park District, has lessons in the classroom and in the pool, where kids work to blow bubbles, tread water, float on their backs and get themselves to safety.

They also meet first responders such as police, firefighters and EMS.

The ZAC Foundation also is working with state legislatures to try to standardize the requirements and enforcement for pool drains around the country.

The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act required all public pools in the U.S. to meet a December 2008 deadline for covering drains to prevent the strong suction that can trap people underwater.

The law was named for former Secretary of State James Baker's 7-year-old granddaughter, a good swimmer who died when suction from a hot tub drain held her underwater. It took two men to break the suction and pull the girl out.

This accident is similar to the one that killed Zach, but he was swimming in a backyard pool, which are not regulated by the new law.

Brian Cohn's family is from Highland Park, but Wheeling also is special for the family because it is a place they visited both with Zach and in the dark days after his death.

"We were in shock and just looking for people to hold us up," Karen said of the summer of 2007 when they came to the Northwest suburbs to be near her husband's family.

"Being away from home kept us distracted," she said.

In those early weeks, the family stayed at a hotel in Wheeling and spent time at the local pool, where they had come on earlier family vacations and where Zach had enjoyed swimming.

When it worked out to hold the first ZAC camp in Illinois in Wheeling, Karen said she felt they were pulled there by a higher power.

"It's like Zach was telling us to come here," she said.

The group tries to focus its efforts on children who may not be able to afford swimming lessons. They even help students buy swimsuits.

"We try to reach children who would not have access to these programs otherwise, whether it's because of financial or cultural reasons," Karen said. "Culturally, sometimes if the parents don't swim, they pass that fear onto their children and they also may not be able to save them if something happens."

A few moms stayed to watch the first day of lessons, proudly taking videos of their children in the pool.

"It's important for her to learn to swim since I don't know how," said Alma Parra of Wheeling, speaking of her 6-year-old daughter Iris Marin.

Although it took years for the Cohn family to see beyond their own tragedy and help others, Brian Cohn said it's been recently that the family has been able to expand the foundation through these camps held around the country.

"It took a while to get ourselves in a place where we could start looking outward," Brian said.

"It was such a traumatic experience for our other kids," he said of Zach's siblings Jenna, Henry and Sydney -- now 12, 7 and 5 -- who all help and participate in the camps. "This has been good for them to move forward also."

Karen said each new kid who learns to swim helps them heal.

She is also working on a book teaching kids the ABCD's of swimming, as she calls them: A, for swimming with an adult; B, for being aware of barriers around water, such as fences; C, for classes like swimming lessons and local water safety courses; and D, for drain safety.

The Cohns encourage families to create a water safety plan, similar to how many create a fire plan for what to do in case of an emergency.

"What we do is for him," Karen said emotionally as she watched the kids' first day in the Wheeling Park District pool. "It's all for him."

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