Keri Morrison wants to ensure that not one more child drowns. But in a state with the highest rate of childhood drownings in the nation (approximately 80 each year, enough to fill four Florida preschool classrooms), she’s got her work cut out for her.
Ask mothers of toddlers to tell you about their child, and you’ll see their faces brighten with a smile. You’ll hear them laugh, or you’ll catch an eyeroll of loving frustration. Ask Keri Morrison about her son Jake, and tears flow instantly.
It’s been three years since Morrison smiled as she snuggled her “mama’s boy.” Three years since she rolled her eyes in amusement at his fascination with flushing toilets. Three years since she laughed as he scrambled after the lizards he called “woo woos” in a language known to Morrison and her husband, Roarke, as “Jakenese.”
That’s because it’s been more than three years since Jake fell off a dock and drowned at a family member’s riverfront home in central Florida while pushing a baby stroller as he’d done through The Gardens Mall in the months before his death.
It was Nov. 30, 2013—just six weeks shy of Jake’s third birthday. After a day of Thanksgiving leftovers and Christmas tree shopping, Morrison was nursing her newborn daughter Julia when she heard someone ask, “Where’s Jake?” A panicked search on foot and jet skis was followed by the grim discovery of Jake, unconscious beneath a dock. An ambulance rushed him to a nearby hospital, but doctors were unable to revive him.
It might be hard to understand how such a thing could’ve taken place. Or it could be hard to believe it could happen to you. Yet, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families, 70 percent of all Florida children who drown are with one or both parents at the time of drowning, and 75 percent are missing from sight for ﬁve minutes or less.
Childhood drowning is an American epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control reports that among children ages 1 to 14, drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death (after motor vehicle crashes). Among children ages 1 to 4, it’s the leading cause of death by injury. But childhood drowning death tolls don’t tell the complete story, considering for every child who drowns, another five children receive emergency department care for a near-drowning. And while half of those children will be released with a clean bill of health, the other half will be hospitalized for injuries like brain damage, long-term disabilities and permanent loss of basic functioning.
What’s more haunting than the thought of a young life cut short by drowning? Knowing that in all likelihood, it was preventable.
That’s why after Jake’s death, the Morrisons started the Live Like Jake Foundation (LLJF) to raise awareness for drowning prevention, and to provide scholarships to families who can’t afford swim lessons. To date, LLJF has awarded almost 500 scholarships (worth more than $90,000) for survival-based swim lessons, like those offered by Infant Swimming Resource (ISR)—the organization that pioneered survival swimming for infants and young children.
In short, Morrison and Roarke Morrison are aiming to save lives. And in two years, they’ve saved three of them. Thanks to the skills they learned through ISR lessons, three of LLJF’s scholarship recipients are alive today after near-drowning incidents.
Jake had taken traditional swim lessons, but Morrison says, “What he learned wasn’t enough to save him.” She thinks that ISR lessons could have saved Jake—or at least they could have given him a chance at survival. “The thought of him falling in and not knowing what to do—
how to swim, to float,” she says through tears. “That visual is
LLJF’s signature event to raise both awareness and funds is its Live Like Jake Run/Walk, featuring a competitive 5K race, a 1-mile family-friendly walk and a 100-yard dash for kids. This year’s race will return to Jupiter’s Abacoa Town Center on May 13. Beyond the more than 1,200 runners and walkers, you’ll spot a swath of 160 pinwheels, one for every child who has drowned in Palm Beach County during the last decade. They’ll turn in the breeze as pinwheels do: idly one moment and wildly the next, not unlike the way grief turns in the hearts of the families those children left behind.
Though Morrison and Roarke Morrison’s daughters—Julia, 3, and Josie, 2—both call lizards “woo woos,” neither speak “Jakenese.” However, the language of loss is universal, and Morrison uses it to spread a powerful message: It happened to me; don’t let it happen to you. “It heals the heart a little bit to do this work,” Morrison says. “It’s not, ‘if we save lives’ or ‘when we save lives.’ It’s just: ‘We are saving lives.’ And we’re doing [it] all in Jake’s memory.”