Joshua and Christian DeMello, age not quite 13 months, flanked by their grief-stricken family, were laid to rest three years ago today during a somber morning ceremony in the stillness of a Port Charlotte cemetery off Forrest Nelson Boulevard.
The twins died tragically after falling into a swimming pool without a baby barrier system at their grandmother’s home in Port Charlotte.
The grieving parents — their father, Paul J. DeMello, calls their deaths “the day that changed my life forever, the moment my heart felt instantly ripped inside out” — consented to donate Christian’s organs.
The following day, a baby in Texas received a life-saving liver transplant, and a 22-year-old woman underwent kidney transplant surgery.
Today, through a foundation created by their father, Joshua and Christian DeMello are still saving young lives. The foundation, Just Against Children Drowning, provides free baby pool barrier systems to families with young children who can’t afford to install them.
It is no coincidence that the foundation’s acronym, JACD, also stands for Joshua and Christian DeMello.
Paul DeMello, 44, shares his emotions openly and unabashedly. “I choose to grieve out loud. It’s a form of therapy for me,” he said in an interview. “I have the passion to take this tragedy to make it meaningful, to save lives. There’s so much more that can be done.”
“The dark side of the Sunshine State is drowning,” he said, adding that more toddlers age 1 to 4 drown in Florida than in any other state, and that a swimming pool is 14 times more likely to be involved in a child’s death than an automobile. “To ignore these facts,” he said, “we are failing our children.”
Besides installing baby barriers, or “family-friendly fencing” as he calls them, the foundation has several other avenues to raise consciousness of the issue, DeMello said. They include “Face Up 2 the Facts” events for community groups involving advice on pool supervision, water safety procedures and CPR.
JACD holds a Twins Tot Walk in October, he said, is planning a motorcycle bike run, and is contemplating partnership with the Charlotte County YMCA to sponsor swimming lessons for children at the Y.
He said the foundation is working with the Florida Department of Children and Families to find families eligible for pool baby barrier installation.
Rena Padgett of Port Charlotte, one of the first to have a barrier installed through JACD, held her year-old daughter, Olivia, tightly on Monday as she viewed her pool-length fence. She said she was grateful for the protection it afforded her baby and for the foundation’s extraordinary support. “She’s almost starting to walk, and there are several doors out to the pool, and now I don’t have to worry,” Padgett said.
Concerned with her child’s safety and short on funds, she asked a friend, Gail Parshley of Port Charlotte, what she should do about the pool. Parshley called DeMello. “He came over the same day,” Parshley said, and the barrier was installed within a few days.
“I can’t say enough about Paul DeMello,” she said. “He’s awesome. You don’t get any better than him. He gives and gives and gives.”
But the level of that giving, DeMello said, depends on the generosity of the foundation’s sponsors, supporters and volunteers, adding gratefully that “none of this could happen without them.” He cited particularly his two prime sponsors for 2012, Southwest Restoration in Port Charlotte and Jason Hartzell painting in Punta Gorda.
Donations, he said, may be made through contributors’ PayPal accounts; directing the donations to email@example.com; through checks to the JACD Foundation, 339 Fortaleza St., Punta Gorda, FL 33983; or by calling 941-626-7106.
The foundation, he said, is registered with the IRS, the state and Charlotte County as a nonprofit organization and is in the process of obtaining a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.
Its website is www.justagainstdrowning.org.