Stephanie McConnell will do whatever she can to prevent a child from drowning like her son did.
McConnell lost her 3-year-old son John Michael on April 30 when he lifted the latch at the family's pool gate and attempted to clean the pool like his grandfather did. He fell in and stopped breathing before family members could rescue him.
McConnell explained her experience at the annual Safe Kids Gainesville-Hall County banquet on Thursday afternoon.
"For many years, I grew up in a fire station and heard all the stories from my father," she said. "You never think it will happen to you."
Like many parents, McConnell used baby gates in the house and safety latches on cabinets.
"But it can happen to any of us," she said. "Accidents happen, and accidents are hard to accept. It's all a blur to me now."
McConnell's five children were in the yard with friends and her husband when she left for a short trip to the store. When she returned, the children were running to the pool and a friend pulled John Michael out. He gave CPR until paramedics arrived.
Although John Michael regained a pulse almost 45 minutes after his heart stopped beating, the McConnell family decided days later that they should remove the tubes keeping him alive.
"He was brain dead. It was the most painful decision," she said. "We came to you today because you promote safety, and we've seen what accidents can do. I don't want any other family to experience what mine has experienced."
She pledged to help the group in any way possible with water safety events and challenged members to help young children in the community attend swimming lessons.
"The natural cycle is that we get old and die, but children do, too," she said. "Sometimes there are accidents, but sometimes accidents can be prevented."
McConnell particularly wants to target low-income families who can't afford swim lessons for their children. "If my son's death can save one life, he won't have died in vain," she said.
The group also presented its three annual awards.
Chestatee High School teacher Allison Wilson was recognized as teacher of the year for the help her health occupations students give with helmet safety each year.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources was recognized for its work with water safety and help with life jacket stations on Lake Lanier. Chris Robinson of the Hall County Sheriff's Office was recognized as the volunteer of the year for his support at several events and by drawing students' attention and making a difference.
"We see a lot of injuries and a lot kids doing things that aren't safe, and these programs really help them to get into the mindset of wearing a helmet and using a life jacket," said Gainesville's Deputy Fire Chief Jerome Yarbrough, a SafeKids board member.
"I grew up in a community where neighbors would watch out for you and tell you to be safe, and we're lucky we grew up and are here today. Now neighbors aren't as involved, and that's where Safe Kids comes in."