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In the summer of 2013, 2-year-old Kyan Braxton Quintana was just starting to get comfortable in the water.
His parents had the toddler enrolled in water safety classes and he was scheduled to begin swimming lessons later that summer.
Then tragedy struck.
On June 9, 2013 – just three weeks shy of his third birthday – he drowned. His mother, Trudy Cedeno Quintana, was watching Kyan and two of his siblings play in the pool in the backyard of their Miami home when she suddenly realized she couldn’t see Kyan, who was wearing a yellow flotation ring, any longer.
“He escaped my main vision while I was talking to the other two,” she tells PEOPLE. “I looked to my left and he was floating.”
Despite frantic efforts by her and, later, paramedics to revive him, the little boy died.
“She called me and all I could hear was her screaming, ‘Kyan! Kyan! Kyan!’ ” says her husband, JC, who arrived home moments later as paramedics were still trying to resuscitate the little boy. “My heart stopped and all sorts of emotions came out.”
Trudy and JC quickly discovered something even more horrifying – they weren’t alone in their terrifying loss.
Florida loses more children under the age five to accidental drownings than any other state, according to the Florida Department of Health.
“Everyone feels their children are not at risk, adds JC, 43, “that drownings are things you hear in the news. It could never happen to me. This is how we thought.”
So the Quintanas, who co-own 14 preschool and charter schools in Florida, chose to turn their tragedy into a life-saving project called Kyan s Kause Swimming Foundation to honor their son – and help other families.
“Our ultimate goal is to save lives – one little swimmer at a time” says Trudy, 42. “Getting families to change their commitment to educating their children in drowning prevention is the ultimate goal.”
To date, Kyan s Kause, which is run by 28 volunteers, has funded swimming scholarships (consisting of eight to 10 lessons) to over 2,500 children in South Florida, in addition to CPR and First-Aid certification scholarships to hundreds of parents, teachers, and community members. The foundation s goal is to ultimately provide swimming lessons for all kindergarteners in the Miami-Dade public school system.
“Their swimming scholarships are invaluable in educating the public,” Dr. Marta Perez-Wurtz, a school board member with Miami-Dade public schools who works closely with the Quintanas, tells PEOPLE.
For Trudy, this also means sitting on the board of the Miami-Dade Drowning Prevention Coalition, which was founded in 2010 to bring together the water safety community and provide a centralized resource for the coordination of information and programs related to water safety awareness, education and advocacy to reduce drowning, non-fatal drowning, and other water related injuries in Miami-Dade.
The foundation has made a world of difference for moms like Leslie Cabrera, 33, who had just about lost hope her then-4-year-old son, Isaac, would ever learn to swim.
“When he was granted the scholarship it was really a last-ditch effort, and I was skeptical,” Cabrera tells PEOPLE. “But from that first day, the swim instructor just made him feel so calm and confident it was incredible. He’s a pro!”
Mother of two, Jeannette Yanes, 32, shares that sentiment.
“After those lessons, my children have gained the survival skills and techniques they need to survive in case of an accident,” says Yanes. “I can’t thank Kyan’s Kause enough for this opportunity and for the dedication they provide to families so that they don’t have to live the same tragedy the Quintana family did.”
The Quintanas credit a strong support system of faith, family and friends with helping them cope with their tragedy – as well as speaking out about their loss.
“We decided as a family that we would not shelter our children or ourselves from the reality we live,” says JC. “We live everyday in hopes of reuniting with our son in Heaven but have a clear understanding that the short life we currently live is a legacy we will honor on behalf of our son Kyan.”