In 2008, Karen Cohn and her husband Brian co-founded The ZAC Foundation after the passing of their 6-year-old son Zachary Archer Cohn, in a pool drain entrapment. The ZAC Foundation was established to ensure that children and families have the tools they need to be safe around water and has educated more than 15,000 children through their programming over the last eight years. Karen has served as a water safety advocate by participating in Congressional briefings and hearings with both Federal and State agencies, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Karen is currently working with State legislators and educators in her home state of Connecticut on the Water Safety Task Force convened by Governor Malloy.
In addition to her work with The ZAC Foundation, Karen is highly engaged in her community. She has serves as a Board member of the Rye Country Day School of Rye, New York, and currently Karen serves as a NE Trustee of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America — Club locations serve over 4-million at-risk kids and teens each year.
Karen’s water safety expertise has been featured in national and statewide media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CNN, Fox News, Family Circle Magazine, CBS Radio, and New York Nightly News, among others.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Iwas devastated when we lost our six-year old son Zachary Archer Cohn. Zach drowned in our backyard pool after his arm became trapped by the powerful suction of the pool drain. As I searched for answers about how this could have happened, I was surprised to learn that unintentional drowning is an epidemic and the leading cause of unintentional death for children ages 1–4, and second leading cause of unintentional death for children ages 5–9.
As a former accountant, numbers and data help me understand problems so I immediately became determined to do whatever I could to make sure other families avoided a tragedy like ours after learning about the seriousness of this issue.
The ZAC Foundation was created in memory of and inspired by Zachary. He was overflowing with energy, curiosity and wit. Each day I wake up excited about what I’m doing. It doesn’t feel like work to me. It’s fulfilling to know that I am serving others out of my family’s tragedy; as well as healing myself and my family. Since the founding of TZF, we have been able to help more than 15,000 children and their families across the nation learn the importance of water safety.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
It’s always unnerving to leave something familiar to try something new. But if you feel intuitively that there is something you need to pursue, you should. You only have one life to live and you should live it doing something that you love. I worked full time before I became a mother and then stayed home with my kids. It certainly was both a risk and a chance to channel my grief into starting the Foundation when my family needed me at home to help them with their grief. Frankly, even today, it still takes courage to share our story of loss and heartache.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I think heartache, love, passion and having an incredible support system are among the major factors that have led to the success of The ZAC Foundation. Without the support and encouragement of my family, friends and wonderful colleagues at TZF, I would not be where I am today. I channeled the love, dedication and energy that I would have put into raising Zachary into growing the Foundation and its legacy. Through our work, we are ensuring that kids nationwide are learning life-saving water skills. We have funded ZAC Camps, where children and parents are equipped with tools to enjoy the water safely while understanding avoidable risks, in communities that do not have access to affordable swim lessons. In addition, we have begun hosting roundtables in cities that are most affected by high drowning rates to begin to establish a drowning prevention action plan to be adopted in those communities and, we hope, eventually throughout the United States.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me before I Became Co-Founder”?
You can survive tragedy. You can find the strength from within to keep going.
You will meet great people along the way — you may be surprised by who your biggest advocates turn out to be.
Find balance in making time for your family and make sure you don’t get lost in establishing your organization.
Hiring the right people is harder than you think. Take your time, hire people you trust.
You will have many goals for yourself and the organization, and prioritizing will be hard, but input from others will prove to be invaluable.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Balance is important in every facet of life. However, if you are passionate about what you are doing, it never feels like work. My work with The ZAC Foundation in honor of Zachary is so much more fulfilling than the work I was doing previously.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Some leaders search for a while to find the right team to execute their vision. I’m fortunate in that the Foundation’s Executive Director, Megan Ferraro, has been with us since day one. Her support goes back to when we first started the foundation. Her background in policy issues and working with political campaigns has been incredibly helpful as we contemplated how to further deliver water safety education to families across the country. After evaluating best practices internationally, we decided to take on the challenge of developing a drowning prevention action plan for the United States. Megan has been a driving force behind our efforts to develop drowning prevention plans in key cities around the country that we hope will lead to a national drowning prevention plan that includes everything from offering swimming lessons to teaching new parents safe bathing techniques. I’m glad I took her advice because our community-based efforts are gaining momentum and we will be expanding next year.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
As we began our work at The ZAC Foundation, I realized that in order to truly reduce the number of unintentional drownings, we needed to put our resources and energy into areas where those problems occurred the most: underserved African-American and Latinx communities. Often, these communities don’t have access to the proper swimming education and resources and are most at-risk for unintentional drowning. We developed our swim program, ZAC Camps, and eventually partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and American Red Cross in order to reach these communities across the country. Since 2011, more than 15,000 children have participated in ZAC Camps nationwide. Instruction includes both swim lessons and a classroom-based water safety curriculum that teaches kids how to avoid drowning risks, lifesaving skills, and how to recognize the signs of drowning. Local responders also participate in ZAC Camps in an effort to create positive relationships between first responders and children in these at-risk communities.
Over the years, as we’ve worked with more families, we’ve realized that ZAC Camps are just the first step in preventing drowning. We have begun convening community leaders, first responders and elected officials in St. Louis, Chicago and our hometown, Greenwich, Ct. to pilot the development of Drowning Prevention Action Plans for each community and that eventually could serve as the basis for a national drowning prevention model, similar to what countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada do.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
A legacy not only for me, but also for my family and Zachary, would be a Drowning Prevention Plan that is adopted by the United States to lower drowning rates across all communities. Children should have access to swim lessons despite their family’s income or community they live in. With a drowning prevention plan we hope to bring swim lessons to each and every child. Reducing drowning rates throughout the country, implementing water safety education in classrooms and instituting a National Drowning Prevention Action plan that is adopted by the US
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I want water safety to be a topic of conversation in every household just like food allergies, screen time, or even car seats and seat belts. For example, the moment new parents leave the hospital with their newborn, they are focused on car seat safety, safe sleeping, etc., but water safety is often times overlooked over other priorities. And, yet it is just as important. An infant can drown in one-inch of water, so water safety should be top of mind when it comes to bath time just as it is when we are at the pool or beach. And, we shouldn’t stop talking about water safety. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 4 and the second leading cause of death for children between the ages of 5 and 9.
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