Joey Pizzano was a happy, smiling 6-year-old, one of Bob and Paola Pizzano’s eight children. He loved playing in the water, laughing when his parents would blow bubbles into his face. A child whose symptoms didn’t fit one particular disability, much like two of his brothers, Joey was aware that he always needed a lifejacket when he went into the water.
But one day, his mother said, Joey woke up from a nap and wandered off, while the family was at their home in Montrose. The door to the fence the family had put in to keep the children away from the river had been fully latched. “We always have lifejackets out. We always put them on the kids,” Paola Pizzano said. “Accidents happen, and we don’t know why.”
Seven years after his drowning, the memory still causes painful heartache for his parents. But they have turned this tragedy, every parent’s worst nightmare, into something wonderful, The Joey Pizzano Memorial Foundation, which funds a swimming and water safety course through the Fairfax County Department of Community and Recreation Services Therapeutic Recreation and Teen Services Division as part of their Saturday afternoon recreational series for children and young adults with developmental disabilities.
The Foundation recently received an award from the National Association of Counties in the “Best in Category” section for Parks and Recreation, a reflection of the partnership the family and foundation has with Fairfax County. The award is given only to the top three programs nationally.
“The Joey Pizzano Memorial Foundation was established to improve the lives of special needs kids,” she said. “We’ve provided funds for the Technology Closet to help kids have access to computers. We’ve done things in Prince George's County as well, and we will provide funding for the aquatic center at the McLean Respite Center through the McLean Bible Church,” she said.
THE FAMILY ALSO worked to raise money to “adopt” a carousel horse, aptly named “Miracle,” at Clemyjontri Park, which is being designed and developed to allow children with special needs to be able to play on a playground like other children.
“We’re very excited about it. This part is almost like a national model for this kind of park,” she said. “The adapted aquatics program did a Water Wonder Walk to raise money for the carousel horse, and we hope we can play a big role in getting a water feature for the park as well.”
But the major emphasis has been the swimming and water safety course.
“They decided they wanted to fund a program to prevent this loss from happening to another family, while allowing Joey’s legacy to live on,” said Evan Braff, Division Supervisor II with the Department of Community and Recreation Services.
“They wanted to start a swimming program that they would fully fund, after I told them there was no money in the budget to start anything brand new. When someone approaches with this kind of an offer, you jump at it,” he said.
Currently, the swimming program is being held at the Kilmer Center, Providence District Recreation Center and the Lee District Recreation Center, and will offer a summer session for the second time this year.
The Pizzano family pays for every aspect of the swimming course: transportation of the students from their home schools to the recreation centers, the admission to the pool, the course instructors. They even pay for the lifeguard license for volunteers who work with the program six consecutive times.
“PARENTS JUST rave about this program. They tell me they’re now able to go swimming with their children in their own leisure time, which they were not able to do before,” Braff said. “Their commitment and dedication to seeing kids safe in the water is amazing.”
The program is devised to rotate the two groups, ages 5 through 12 and ages 13 through 21, to allow both groups to have two sessions per month in the pool and two sessions learning water safety through videos, according to the program’s abstract. The students learn how to flutter kick, blow bubbles, do various swim strokes, as well as how to signal for help and use floatation devices.
The Pizzanos were recognized by the Board of Supervisors at their meeting Monday morning, recommended by Dranesville District supervisor Joan DuBois for their incredible work.
“The Pizzanos’ project was submitted to the National Association of Counties to get an award for a program that they believe to be noteworthy or special,” DuBois said. “We quickly picked up on that and had also heard about their work with Clemyjontri Park and that they want to do some kind of water feature there.
“The Recreation Department loves this family,” DuBois said. “Here’s a family that has taken a huge loss, one I cannot comprehend, and they turned it into a positive.”
“I think this helps the family keep Joey’s memory alive,” said Linda Lammersen, an appointee to the Board of Supervisors, who works with the Parks and Recreation Department. “What a wonderful job they’ve done with this therapeutic swimming program.”
During the Board of Supervisors’ meeting Monday morning, Bob Pizzano spoke with the Board about the program and the labor of love he and his family carry out in his son’s memory. “I’m sure Joey is very proud of all of us,” he said.
SINCE THE PROGRAM started four years ago, the county has not had to contribute to the program at all, Braff said. Each session costs approximately $6,000 per five-week block of time.
“It’s been an awesome thing. It’s so great to go out to the program and see these kids with disabilities go out and have fun with everyone in the water,” he said. “Water can be such a soothing atmosphere. When some kids with serious behavioral issues go into the water, it has the biggest calming effect on them.”
The Pizzano family organizes and oversees the swimming program without any outside help or assistance, Braff said, but their dedication to water safety and their loving nature make them “such a dedicated and inviting family. They’re always trying to think of how to expand the program and help even more kids.”
It is estimated that over 1,000 children benefited from the Pizzano’s generosity last year alone. The first year of the program there were 70 children from all over Fairfax County that participated in the swimming course.
“In the program, we really stress water safety and make sure the kids learn how to pull themselves up out of the water a few times each session in the pool,” said Sandy Dallhoff, program manager with the Department of Community and Recreation Services.
“I’ve heard Mr. and Mrs. Pizzano say that this program is a constant reminder of Joey in a positive way,” she said. “It’s a living tribute to him. To have all of this come out of the fact that their son passed away is above and beyond what you’d expect a family to do.”
THE PIZZANOs have two sons, Tom and Matt, who participate in this special program, so they can see the benefits first hand.
“They’re working on setting up a way to monitor the progress at each of the three sites,” Dallhoff said. “They visit each site at least once per session to get a full feel of how things are going, and every time they come out they have a big smile on their faces.”
Initially, there were some difficulties in finding volunteers who wanted to give up Saturday afternoons to work in a pool with disabled children, but as the program endured and the children began to really enjoy the experience, there has been no shortage of volunteers.
“I think the groups of volunteers get as much out of it as the kids,” Paola Pizzano said. “It’s so rewarding to see these kids learn so much and get so excited to go into the pool. I’ve had mothers tell me they can’t write it on their calendars that they’re going swimming because their children will carry their bathing suits around for the rest of the week.”
With the recognition, Pizzano said there’s a validity to the good work being achieved through the program.
“I know the parents are thankful, and the kids appreciate it. I know we’ve impacted their lives. But if we help a program in this county, and can help programs in other counties, I think the recognition will be worth it. It’ll help other people,” she said.
“The whole idea of having something like this foundation to keep the memory of our son alive is a double-edged sword,” Bob Pizzano said. “He never gets forgotten, but what happens never gets forgotten either.”
Receiving this award now is somewhat bittersweet: Joey’s birthday was two weeks ago; he would have been 13.
“My husband reminds me of all the good that came from this tragedy,” she said.
Donations to the Joey Pizzano Memorial Fund can be addressed to 10245 Deercrest Meadow Place, Vienna, VA 22182. More information on the Foundation is available on its Web site, www.JPMF.org.