PUNTA GORDA — More than 51 children drowned this year in Florida including four in the region since September. Last month Wayne Schaefer Jr. died in his Port Charlotte home pool.
Just weeks after the boy turned 2 years old, he slipped through the unlocked sliding glass door open to the pool and drowned.
In Lee County, an autistic child drowned. In Collier County, a 10-year-old, who was with his babysitter, drowned at a pool party. A 4-year-old drowned after exiting an open sliding glass door in Cape Coral.
These families are experiencing the same pain as Paul DeMello did when his 13-month-old twins drowned in 2010 in their grandparent’s pool in Venice.
DeMello didn’t want other families to suffer the way he does daily. He started a foundation Just Against Children Drowning in Charlotte County. The foundation raises money for infant and toddler swim lessons and he installs fencing for families who lost a child to drowning.
“Drowning has no season, our twin boys Joshua and Christian DeMello drowned in the middle of winter, in the backyard swimming pool,” DeMello said, adding 88 children drowned in Florida.
For the past five years, the foundation sponsored a Tot Walk and River Run 5K at Gilchrist Park, 400 W. Retta Esplande Court in Punta Gorda.
“We have 218 signed up for our JACD drowning prevention event which we have never have before, leading up to the day of the run,” DeMello said. “We can welcome many more. We have people coming from Fort Myers, North Port, Venice, Englewood, Sarasota and even out of state. So many people have been impacted by children who drowned. We come together to remember our loved ones.”
DeMello said working with city of Punta Gorda officials has been a delight. The city permitted Just Against Children Drowning to close off one lane of the Punta Gorda bridge so walkers and runners can safely cross it beginning at 4:15 p.m. Saturday.
“The 5K can take up to 45 minutes and the 2.2 mile Twins Tot Walk can take up to a hour,” he said.
All proceeds from the fundraiser will be used for drowning prevention, water safety education and fencing programs.
“We also pay for swim lessons for families through YMCA programs in Venice, Englewood and Charlotte County,” he said. “We are going kick off the new year with 200 free swimming lessons that families can sign up for on site.”
DeMello doesn’t rest after the 5K. He immediately begins planning for the annual motorcycle run from Punta Gorda to Englewood and Venice in the spring to raise money for pool fence installation.
“I install fences after children drown at family pools,” he said. “I also work with the Department of Children and Families to install fences and gates for families in need. The problem is it’s often done after a near drowning or after a child dies. I don’t do this for any kind of recognition. Drownings are real. They happen way too often in our region. When a child drowns, it impacts a family forever.”
Registration for the Tot Walk begins at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and is $22. It is $35 for adults for the 5k River Run and $15 for children 14 & under. Online pre-registration is $25 on Friday and Saturday at www.justagainstchildrendrowning.org
For more information about the fundraiser, foundation, prevention or swim lessons, call 941-626-7106.