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, she and her husband 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. The instructors also held a water safety day 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 he was playing at a 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 about 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 said children read Bible verses before swimming lessons.
Among the children enrolled in the class were 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."
Page 2 of 2 - Sears said Zaven's Wishes will continue to get bigger. She hopes to provide swimming lessons to 40 children next summer.
The one-day public session taught children how to float, how to help a drowning person, how to reach safety after accidentally falling into water and how to feel comfortable in the water. Instructors come from the South Louisiana Swim Team, the same group teaching swimming classes for Zaven's Wishes. The American Red Cross was 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.
Smith's children took swimming lessons because of Zaven. She and Zaven's mother were acquaintances when he died, and she remembers sitting down with her children to break the news.
Their father had told 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 surface. His father, aunt and grandfather were just feet away, but a pole obscured their sight. 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."