Every drowning is tragic. But the tragedy that befell 21-month-old Jasper St. Clair in 2014 seemed almost unspeakable.

His parents, Julie Lopiccolo and Jonathan St. Clair, lifelong lovers of the water, had a healthy respect for the dangers it presented to Jasper. They knew Jasper had to be supervised whenever he was around water, and that he should never be at a home with an ungated pool. They also knew that their babysitter had an ungated backyard pool, so they expressly told her never to bring Jasper to her house.

The babysitter didn’t listen. She took Jasper to her home, left him alone for only minutes, and found him face-down in the pool. Jasper spent nearly a week in the hospital fighting for his life, but lost that battle, leaving his parents bereaved and bewildered.

Even 10 years later, Lopiccolo and St. Clair fight back tears when recalling those moments.

“We just kept asking ourselves, ‘How could this happen to us?’” St. Clair recalls.

They searched for information about water safety and drowning and unearthed little. It occurred to them that, when they were preparing to have Jasper, very little information was provided about drowning.

“We’re both Type A personalities, so it didn’t take much for us to decide we were going to make something good happen out of a horrific situation. From there, it took on its own heartbeat.”

Jasper’s legacy

In many ways, that heart started beating on what would have been Jasper’s second birthday.

The couple’s Orange County community had seen an unusual number of drownings that summer, and the local fire department asked if Lopiccolo and St. Clair would be willing to tell their story on the local news. At first the grieving parents hesitated, but then they realized they couldn’t say no.

“We wanted people to be really impacted by Jasper’s story,” Lopiccolo recalls. “We wanted to say, ‘It absolutely can happen to you. Look at my broken heart. Look at my broken family and do something different.”

The message hit home, and soon a new powerhouse in the watersafety awareness community was born in the form of the couple’s Jasper Ray Foundation for Drowning Prevention and Child Safety. Water safety advocates immediately recognized that, because of the unusual circumstances surrounding their son’s drowning, Lopiccolo and St. Clair could speak about their grief and the need for better water safety practices, free from the shame and self-blame that often haunts those whose children drowned on their watch.

“Our single largest goal is that we want to see the shame and guilt around a drowning to be less hateful toward parents and guardians,” St. Clair says. “They already take that guilt on. They don’t need an outside force adding to it.”

Force for good

Advocates observe that Lopiccolo and St. Clair have a rare synergy, and that their combined strengths have been a powerful force for drowning prevention.

Over the past 10 years, the couple has helped create new legislation and new attitudes about water safety. The two were integral in steering passage of California’s Pool Safety Act in 2018. It was the first state law to require new or remodeled pools and spas to have two of seven child-protective safety barriers.

While lobbying for the law, Lopiccolo drew from her background as an attorney, with passionate testimony that combined her personal experience with key data points. St. Clair used his professional printing expertise to create banners that hung in the capitol, detailing the drowning deaths of six children.

While the two work undeniably well together, they also focus on different aspects of the issue, with Lopiccolo often serving as the public face, while St. Clair stays more behind the scenes. Some of his most personal work happens with Families United Against Drowning and the National Drowning Prevention Alliance as the person who contacts newly bereaved parents of a drowning.

“It’s so important for them to be able to talk to someone who knows what it’s like to lose a child to drowning,” he says. “Most of the time it’s incredibly healing to know that my story helps someone else become an advocate instead of feeling like a victim.”

Lopiccolo, meanwhile, serves on the board for the California Water Safety Coalition, which works to lead statewide strategy in the development, implementation and evaluation of water safety policy, education and programs. She continues to work for solutions, but the process has humbled her in surprising ways.

“It’s really educational working with other people who have been working on this problem for a long time,” she says. “I have learned that the problem of drowning is really complex, and I don’t have any definite solutions, which is frustrating. But I do know that allowing children around unfenced pools is an unreasonable risk that parents and grandparents are taking every day. Until that changes, children are going to continue to drown in the same way Jasper did.”

A new generation

Looking forward, Lopiccolo and St. Clair are hoping the new Fish Outta Water 5k they helped launch will become a growing annual event to raise money for water safety efforts and public awareness of the problem. This year, the event raised $20,000.

The couple also is excited to include their two children, 8-year-old Luna and 5-year-old Archer, in their water safety odyssey. They started swim lessons as infants — Archer, when he was just a few months old — and are living legacies to Jasper’s memory.

“It’s so great being able to involve our kids in our water safety activities,” St. Clair says. “It’s exciting to see the next generation coming up and how they can be advocates for drowning prevention from a kid’s perspective.”

With all they’ve accomplished, the couple has their sights on more. For his part, St. Clair would like to get more involved in the political side of drowning prevention, while Lopiccolo is focused on building a board to help steer the Jasper Ray Foundation into the future.

“Sometimes I just want to take a step back and say, ‘Okay, I’ve honored my son, and I’ve put my time in,’” Lopiccolo says. “I’m a working mom with young kids. But it’s really hard to walk away when it’s such a big problem.”

Adds St. Clair: “It has been a very long road, but my two kids and my wife continue to drive me. As parents, we can’t imagine going through something like losing Jasper again. And we’re trying to make it so no one else has to go through something like that either.”