Posted Date: Sunday, July 22, 2012
By Mary Sparacello, The Times-Picayune
When 9-year-old Zaven Sears drowned in a pool a year ago, he didn’t know how to swim. The boy with him, also 9, knew how to swim but not how to help someone who is drowning. "I know that if that little boy knew life-saving skills, he would have saved my dear Zaven," said Zaven’s mother, Oasha Sears.
Hoping to avoid other senseless deaths, Zaven’s parents established a foundation to provide swimming lessons and teach life-saving skills. The inaugural class of Zaven’s Wishes began in June with 20 children, ages 4 to 13, and on Saturday the instructors will hold a water safety day that is open to all children six to 16. "Our primary goal is just to teach them to save a life," Sears said.
From 2005 to 2009, about 10 people drowned every day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of drowning victims, 20 percent are younger than 15. Among children 1 to 14, drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death behind motor vehicle crashes, according to the CDC.
Zaven became one of those statistics on July 25. Oasha and Rubin Sears thought their son was playing at his friend’s apartment down the street from their Kenner home. But police concluded that the two boys rode their bicycles a mile to the Driftwood Park Country Club, which was closed because of rain, and scaled a fence to get inside. His friend told authorities that Zaven was holding on to the side of the club’s swimming pool when he slipped under water.
Zaven would have been a third grader at Memorial Baptist Christian School. He had a bubbly personality, earned good grades, loved Boy Scouts, school choir, skateboarding, bicycling, soccer and art and was a teacher’s helper.
His parents came up with the idea for the foundation about a month after his death. They prayed on it for about six months, waiting for a sign from God. As more people started asking about the idea, Oasha Sears talked with a lawyer who helped set up the nonprofit in March.
Then she threw herself into the foundation, setting up the zavenswishes.org website and holding two fundraisers, each attended by hundreds of people.
She credits her faith in God with helping her cope after Zaven’s death, and the swim lessons incorporate Jesus into the lesson plan. Children read Bible verses before swim lessons, she said.
Among the children enrolled in the class are Gabrielle Smith’s 7-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. Her son had little swimming ability, and her daughter, though better in the water, was afraid of it. Now both are good enough that they are talking about swimming competitively.
Smith, friends with Zaven’s parents, praised their work to start the foundation in his memory. "They were able to see past their loss to prevent other losses," Smith said. "I don’t think you can be any more selfless than that. I’m proud to know them."
Sears said Zaven’s Wishes will continue to get bigger. She hopes to provide swim lessons to 40 children next summer.
In the meantime, Saturday’s water safety day will teach any child who registers how to float, how to assist a drowning person, how to reach safety after accidentally falling into water and how to feel comfortable in bodies of water. Instructors come from the South Louisiana Swim Team, the same group teaching swimming classes for Zaven’s Wishes. The American Red Cross will be on hand to demonstrate how to use a life jacket.
"We’re trying to expose kids who otherwise don’t have access to pools," said Kaci McGuire, the South Louisiana Swim Team’s public relations director. "We want to teach these kids how to be competent in the water."
McGuire said the South Louisiana Swim Team is making a push for diversity. USA Swimming says 70 percent of African-Americans children and 60 percent of Latino children don’t know how to swim. African-American children drown at a rate nearly three times higher than their white peers, according to the CDC.
The lessons that Smith’s children are now taking came about because of Zaven, a boy whose death particularly touched her. She and Zaven’s mother were acquaintances when he died, and she remembers sitting down with her children to break the news.
Their father instructed them to stay calm if they ever start drowning, push themselves upwards and try to reach the side of the pool. "I never thought they would ever need to use that," Smith said, adding that the children get in the water only with a parent present.
But just last month, her son was floating in an inflatable tube when he slipped below the water’s surface. His father, aunt and grandfather were just feet away, though their sight was obscured by a pole. The boy remembered his father’s instruction, pushed off the bottom of the pool and was almost to the side when his relatives heard his cry and rescued him.
Zaven "leaving here was not in vain," Smith said. "The impact that his death is going to have on the world is going to be phenomenal."