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His 3-year-old drowned in Columbus. Now he’s helping local kids learn how to swim.

Father of drowning victim partners with CSU student, community center to help kids learn to swim

Three-year-old Manuel "Will" William Cabezas drowned July 22, 2015 in the Green Island Country Club pool. His father Manuel has now partnered with a local swimming instructor and community center to offer free swimming lessons for those most in need.
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Three-year-old Manuel "Will" William Cabezas drowned July 22, 2015 in the Green Island Country Club pool. His father Manuel has now partnered with a local swimming instructor and community center to offer free swimming lessons for those most in need.

Despite his tender age, this St. Luke preschooler would give his father a wise warning as he left their Ellerslie home each workday:

“Be careful, Papa.”

Manuel William “Will” Cabezas was 3 years old when he died July 22, 2015, during a summer camp at Green Island Country Club in Columbus. Two lifeguards were on duty while Will was in the pool with approximately three dozen other children that afternoon, but he drowned in 4 feet of water.

Will wasn’t 4 feet tall. He didn’t know how to swim. And he wasn’t wearing a flotation device.

Three years later, his father, Manny Cabezas, a safety officer for Southeastern Window Concepts, has found a way to honor the legacy of his deceased son — “a giver,” Cabezas called him, “more concerned about others.”

Cabezas is funding swimming lessons at the Harris County Community Center for disadvantaged children to have the advantage of learning this life-preserving skill. After watching one of those lessons this week, Cabezas summed up his feelings.

“When you lose a child — or anyone, but a child especially — you’ve got to find reasons to live,” he said. “Doing this and seeing the children happy and learning how to swim makes that a good reason.”

As for what his son would think of children learning how to swim because of the donation in his memory, Cabezas said, “He knew the Lord, and I think that he would have loved this. … I feel like this is one way we can continue his name and the giving spirit that he had.”

Took a chance and called

Cabezas, along with Will’s mother, Sandi, made Will an organ donor. Two of his heart valves helped save the lives of two children.

Then, as a way to memorialize his cherished child in the community he cherishes, Cabezas donated money to the Harris County Public Library, where a plaque in Will’s honor hangs in the children’s section.

One day this summer, after visiting the library, Cabezas stopped by the adjacent community center. There, he saw a flier advertising swimming lessons — and an idea for a fitting tribute to Will popped into his head.

So he took a chance and called the number.

Emily King, 19, a pre-med biology major at Columbus State University, was rushing to prepare for another one of the swimming lessons she was giving. She didn’t know the person calling her, but she took the time to answer it anyway.

Cabezas introduced himself and told her Will’s story.

Emily already knew the story. She happens to be friends with Will’s half-brother, Zack Sisk, a 19-year-old early childhood education major at CSU. They graduated from Harris County High School in 2017.

She quickly felt connected to Cabezas’ quest when she realized she was talking to Will’s father.

“It just clicked,” she recalled, “and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’”

So when Cabezas pitched his idea to pay for swimming lessons she would teach, Emily immediately agreed.

“It’s just a great opportunity to help the community,” said Emily, a member of the Honors College and Servant Leadership programs at CSU. “I love what I do. I love children. … I have a heart for service.”

The amazing circumstances that led Cabezas to call Emily and her enthusiastic response heartened him.

“It’s all been a neat progression of Harris County,” he said. “If you don’t know somebody, you know their brother or sister.”

Emily didn’t know Will, but she’s known Zack since middle school. She remembered Zack showing her photos of Will.

“I could tell how well loved and beloved this child was,” said Emily, who wants to become a pediatrician. “He was a precious gift. It was such a tragic accident.”

Sharing the cautionary story

To advertise this round of swimming lessons, Emily posted a notice on the Harris County Group Chat Facebook page and gave fliers to families with children attending Valley Rescue Mission’s Camp Joy, where she was a lifeguard last year. Within the first week, all 10 slots were filled for the free lessons, which cost $50 for community center members and $65 for nonmembers. She has taught more than 70 children in total this summer.

Her brother, rising CSU freshman engineering major Pearse King, 18, helps her teach the swimming lessons. Instead of taking their instruction fee from Cabezas’ donation, after the 30 percent cut that goes to the community center for the pool time, Emily and Pearse are volunteering their time for these lessons.

“That money is going to be utilized to have more children coming into the lessons as well as supplies that we need for the class,” Emily said.

In just three years as a lifeguard, Emily said, she already has responded to emergency situations in the water.

“It doesn’t matter your skill level, it doesn’t matter your age, you have to be safe in the water,” she said.

And she has seen “parents fall asleep while their 4-year-old is swimming in the deep end. … It only takes a second. You never know. You have to be always cautious, always aware.”

She urges parents to tell their children, “We’re not supposed to be scared of the water; we need to be safe and cautious in the water.”

But even strong swimmers can drown if people out of the water aren’t alert enough to help them when they are struggling. That’s why Cabezas asked Emily to tell Will’s cautionary story to the adults who bring the children to the lessons. He and Zack delivered that message to one of the groups gathered for a lesson Wednesday.

“I just tried to explain to the kids on their level what happened to Will and that it’s important to stay near and not be out of the sight of their parents (while they are in the water),” said Zack, who works part time at the Columbus Aquatic Center.

“The parents need to make sure they are watching the kids at all times,” Cabezas said. “If they’re not with the child, make sure that whatever birthday party or summer camp or any kind of swim party that they go to, make sure that there’s adequate supervision with adults or qualified teenagers.”

“I’ll get to it later”

Although he had a pool at home, Will didn’t know how to swim.

“He always had floaties and a life jacket,” Cabezas said. “…If you would have asked me if he needed (swimming lessons) at 2 years old or 3 years old, I would have said, ‘I’ll get to it later,’ because I did not realize that they absorb the education of knowing how to swim that early.”

Cabezas said he has learned, “As parents and grandparents, the first thing we can do as responsible adults is to make sure the children that we have in our care receive swimming lessons or make sure that they safety devices on, whether it be floaties or life jackets, any time they’re around water.”

Harris County resident Leah Lassen watched two of her children, 8-year-old Benjamin and 5-year-old Clara, take lessons from Emily and Pearse. She appreciates what Cabezas and Nick said to the group.

“He was talking about how important the supervision is around the pool,” she said, “and having the skills if the unexpected happened so they would know how to handle it. Anything can happen. You try to watch your children and keep your eye on them at all times, but things can just happen. It just takes a second.”

Although she paid for her children’s lessons, she praised the donation from Cabezas.

“You always have two directions that you can go,” Lassen said, “and he’s choosing to take the positive route, taking something that was very negative and using it to help others.”

Cabezas intends to donate another lump sum to allow more children from low-incomes families to have free swimming lessons if Emily gets more to sign up.

HOW TO REGISTER FOR THE FREE LESSONS

Email swimminginstructor Emily King at king.emily1234@gmail.comto fill out a financial-need form. Children from families receiving social security,social security disability, free or reduced-price school meals, federal welfareor foster care are eligible.

She also welcomes additional donations to help pay for more swimming lessons.

Approximately 10 people die from unintentional drowning in the United States per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ranking drowning fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death. And an average of two out of every 10 drowning deaths are children age 14 or younger.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE
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