GREENWICH — Kids at the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich spent their spring break in the pool. But the week was not just fun and games — in between splashes there were valuable lessons about safety to be learned.
The club was once again host to ZAC Camp, during which 120 kids from the Greenwich and Stamford clubs learned about safe swimming and spent time with Greenwich’s first responders to see ambulances and fire trucks up close and learn they should never be afraid to ask for help.
The event is a deeply personal one for Greenwich residents Karen and Brian Cohn, who started the ZAC Foundation after the 2007 death of their son Zachary. The six-year-old drowned in a backyard swimming pool after his arm became trapped in the suction of a drain that had an improperly installed cover.
In 2011, the foundation began sponsoring the ZAC Camp during spring break at the Boys and Girls Club to teach children how to be safe swimmers.
“I feel that Zachary is watching down and he is smiling,” Karen Cohn said on Thursday.
Since its launch, ZAC Camp has gone national, which Cohn said has allowed them to reach 15,000 children over the years. There are camps each year in 20 different cities with a focus on states like Florida, Texas and California where there are a high number of drownings.
For Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich CEO Bobby Walker Jr., the ZAC Foundation is a welcome presence in the club every spring.
“This is so important,” Walker said. “If you do any research about drowning rates among young kids of color, particularly those who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, you’ll see it’s significantly higher than any other segment of the population. Knowing these young kids are learning these skills now in first, second and third grade, you know they’re going to live a life where they’re safer in the water.”
Walker said the best part for him is seeing the kids teach someone else the “incredible skills” they learned.
“You have the youngest among us teaching everyone about safety and telling their parents what to do,” Walker said. “That’s what makes ZAC Camp so special. It’s a gift that keeps on giving so to speak.”
The lessons of ZAC Camp are built around what the Cohns call the ABCDs of safe swimming: A for having an adult nearby when you swim, B for barriers — gates or fences — that must surround pools, C for classes to teach about swimming and water safety and D for drain safety.
On Thursday afternoon, the camp held its annual closing ceremony at which all of the kids were given medals for participating.
“I feel so happy to have created a legacy in memory of Zachary,” Cohn said prior to the ceremony. “We’ve been doing this for eight years now and we actually have kids that have outgrown it. It’s really great to see new kids coming in and there were several children that at the start of this week were too afraid of swimming to get in and by the end were in the water and blowing bubbles and putting their faces in.”
As part of the ceremony, Cohn brought up several of the children who had been too afraid to get in the water at first. They received a loud round of applause for what they accomplished during the four days of camp.
One was seven-year-old Sebastian Modzelewski-Verdan, who was swimming around with his sister Ariana by the end of the camp. Eight-year old Sophia Materon said her favorite part was getting a kayak into the pool water and tipping over in it as she learned how to properly wear a life jacket.
The closing ceremony featured appearances by Police Chief James Heavey, Fire Chief Peter Siecinski, representatives from GEMS, state Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-36, and state Reps. Michael Bocchino, R-150, and Fred Camillo, R-151. Heavey and Camillo both talked about how they were once “club kids” who learned to swim there, just like all of the kids in attendance had done.
“You’ve just completed one of the most important safety courses you will ever complete in your life,” Frantz said. “There’s water everywhere you go and it’s super critical that you know how to handle water so you can swim and recognize when someone else is having a problem in the water.”
In 2018, the ZAC Foundation is marking its 10th year. A second ZAC Camp will be held locally in Stamford at the end of July, and there are additional plans expected to be formalized soon to provide kids in town with safe swimming instruction, creating what Cohn called a “community of water safety.”