Megan Ferraro and Karen Cohn of the ZAC Foundation
Megan Ferraro and Karen Cohn of the ZAC Foundation

Megan Ferraro and Karen Cohn have maintained a high profile in the safety community, to say the least.

The executive director and cofounder, respectively, of The ZAC Foundation, they have actively contributed to a number of efforts and coalitions, with the most prominent recently being the U.S. Water Safety Action Plan and the California Water Safety Strategy.

Both are mothers who lost small children and made it their mission to prevent as many people as possible from becoming a part of this club that nobody wants to join. What’s more, their mission focuses on hazards other than those that took their children.

Through their dedication, The ZAC Foundation has not only served as an example for other organizations founded by survivors but, with the combined skillsets of Ferraro and the Cohns, has helped lead the water-safety community the way of collaboration — even with those who may disagree with them.

Loss into action

The actions that Cohn and her husband, Brian, took after suffering loss largely changed the course of water safety approaches and attitudes in the U.S.

The entrapment death of their six-year-old, Zachary Archer, revived what had been a flagging drive to pass the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, the federal law that requires every commercial swimming pool to have certain entrapment-prevention measures in place, most notably the use of drain covers tested for safety against the hazard. The Cohns spoke out and testified in favor of the legislation immediately after their loss.

It was the first federal pool and spa safety legislation and, while now ubiquitous, its requirements were unheard of at the time. Not only did all new pools require these measures, but so did every single existing commercial and public swimming pool in the country. Owners and operators of approximately 300,000 pools had a year to comply. Additionally, the law helped raise awareness about a hazard that had only recently come to light for the public. No entrapment is known to have taken place in a commercial or public pool since the law’s compliance deadline. Finally, the law spurred those who resisted pool and spa safety regulation of any type to accept it more readily.

This, on its own, carried the water-safey mission several strides forward. But the Cohns went on to start the ZAC Foundation, one of the most highly visible of the so-called “family foundations” — those begun by surviving members of a drowning victim. From early on, the organization focused on an issue that has moved to the forefront in drowning prevention: bringing swimming lessons to underserved communities.

Ferraro came into the cause less directly. Early in her career, she served as a consultant for the Department of Health and Human Services, focusing on communication strategy. She also worked on presidential campaigns and with pharmaceutical companies on developing grassroots advocacy and communication strategy.

In 2010, she began working with the ZAC Foundation, then a client of the public relations firm where she worked. Her pool of clients varied from nonprofits to large industries and corporations. Over time, her duties with the ZAC Foundation evolved into that of an executive director.

After her daughter died from an accident during childbirth in 2015, Ferraro underwent a personal re-evaluation. “I had a sort of come-to-Jesus moment where I didn’t want to work for political candidates or the pharmaceutical industry, so I decided to dedicate my time to passion projects,” she says.

As fate would have it, the Cohns needed a full-time executive director, so she joined the staff.

Joining forces

Ferraro had honed her skills in fostering collaboration even before joining the ZAC Foundation.

“A big part of my background was in this grassroots advocacy work — how to get all different types of stakeholders to sit at a table together to collaborate on the solution,” she says.

That has served her, the ZAC Foundation, and the water-safety community well.

To help the ZAC Foundation accomplish its goal of bringing swim lessons to underserved areas, it began by hosting community roundtable meetings for stakeholders of all types to attend and contribute. They discussed what a community drowning-prevention action plan should look like. Those discussions materialized as something of a precursor to the national and state water-safety strategies of late.

“We started to create what we wanted to look like a community drowning prevention action plan,” Cohn says.

Stepping out of her own organization, Ferraro not only has served as a member of the Steering Committee for the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan, but she performed as liaison for the Water Safety/Water Competency working group, as well as the Barriers/Suction Entrapment and Electrical Safety Working group. And she performed other duties meant to ensure all stakeholders contributed and felt like part of the process.

“I very much believe in collaboration and bringing even stakeholders who may not agree with each other to sit down at the table to talk about areas of success and weaknesses and challenges, whether related to a specific public policy area or simply how to get kids to swim lessons,” she says.

And, of course, she helped with media and public relations strategies as well as advocacy on Capitol Hill.

Most recently, she was named the chair of the California Water Safety Coalition. Additionally, she recently joined two crucial committees for the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance. The Standards and Consensus Committee and the Writing Committee both play central roles in the development of model codes written by the PHTA. This helps put the days of contention between the pool/spa industry and safety community well in the rearview mirror.

Karen Cohn also holds posts with other organizations, including as a trustee on the Northeast Board of the Boys & Girls Club, largely as a result of a national partnership in delivering swimming lessons. She recently presented at the World Conference on Drowning Prevention in Perth, Australia. She is a board member of the California Water Safety Coalition and served on the Blue Ribbon Panel for the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan.

The impact

The work of Cohn, Ferraro and the ZAC Foundation has resulted in changes immediate and far-reaching.

Through the ZAC Camps and the Foundation’s collaborations with the Red Cross and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, approximately 25,000 children have received swim lessons or water safety instruction. Ferraro expects the benefits to extend well past those who received lessons, when they share their knowledge and attitudes with their own children.

“It’s the idea of creating a generational shift around drowning prevention and water safety awareness,” Ferraro says.

The ZAC Foundation has also played a pivotal role in establishing a footprint for family foundations, helping define their crucial role in the world of water safety advocacy, as well as reaching out to other such organizations to help them get started.

And their work on the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan, as well as assistance with state and local action plans around the country, guarantees they will have an impact for generations to come.

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