Jon Santarelli loved to be on the water. Almost every weekend, he could be found sailing on a yacht on the shores of Lake Michigan.
But it was his love of the water that ultimately led to his death, as he died last summer during a tragic sailing accident on a yacht race to Michigan. Santarelli was just 53 years old.
“He was adventurous, and he always had a smile on his face. He could always make anybody happy,” said Santarelli’s mother, Dorene. “He walked into a room, and he would always light it up.”
Santarelli’s parents, Frank and Dorene Santarelli, wanted to make sure their son’s legacy lived on. That’s why they decided to make a $10,000 donation to establish a scholarship endowment at the Kenosha YMCA.
The “Jon Santarelli Safety Around Water Scholarship” will provide scholarships for swimming lessons to families and children in need. It will help at least six to 10 children in its first year offered, and will last for at least 50 years.
Frank and Dorene, who live in Kenosha and are regulars at the Kenosha YMCA, are offering the donation in hopes that it will ultimately save lives.
“We want as many kids to learn how to swim as possible,” Dorene said. “If something happens, you don’t think about it until you have to think about it.”
Chris Finkel, the development director at Kenosha YMCA, said the YMCA generally sees around 400 kids a year in its water safety program. He said the endowment will grow every year, reaching more and more kids.
Two children per day drown in the U.S, according to Safe Kids Worldwide.
The Safety Around Water program involves teaching kids a sequenced set of skills over eight les sons of 40 minutes each. Instructors teach children how to adjust to the water while remaining safe.
“I was very humbled by their generosity,” Finkel said.
Cindy Altergott, Kenosha YMCA executive director, said she was also “humbled and grateful” for the donation.
“This support can literally save a child’s life,” she said.
Santarelli grew up in Racine, Monroe and Kenosha, graduating from Tremper High School. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Parkside for some time, ultimately receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of South Florida.
He settled in Chicago, working as a project manager at Molex in Lisle, Ill.
Santarelli’s passion was traveling, and he sought adventures all across the globe. He participated in triathlon events and ran the occasional half marathon. He was also a motorcycle enthusiast, completing the Iron Butt Challenge.
But Santarelli’s main passion was sailing, and he did so every chance he could get.
Santarelli died July 21, 2018, shortly after the start of the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac Island. Santarelli’s auto-inflate life jacket did not activate. His body was found one week later.
Shortly after the accident, many of his friends and family started a GoFundMe campaign in hopes of raising money for a memorial bench in Lincoln Park in Chicago. The campaign raised $15,000 through more than 200 donations in just eight months.
The donation to the Kenosha YMCA was made through money raised by the Santarellis and the GoFundMe campaign.
Santarelli will also be memorialized with a plaque in the Kenosha YMCA aquatic center later this month.
“Hopefully someone will learn how to swim, and if they’re ever in a position where they’re in stress in the water, at least they might be able to help save themselves,” Frank Santarelli said.