Parents Carrie and Larry Carroll had a normal, happy family life with two children under the age of six and a third on the way.
Then, on April 4, their world shattered. Larry went to wake up their 2-year-old daughter, Savannah. She wasn’t breathing.
“It was the worst day of our lives,” Larry, 40, tells PEOPLE. “We still have no clue how we woke up to this nightmare.”
The loss was devastating – but not knowing what caused her death compounded their pain.
The family would learn Savannah died from SUDC, Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood, a rare diagnosis in which a child over the age of 12 months dies without any clear reason. SUDS is diagnosed after an autopsy and after child abuse has been ruled out, according to SUDC Foundation.
“It basically means they don’t know how our baby girl died,” Larry says. “It made us ask ourselves if there was something we could have done to prevent it.”
After the longest day of their lives, which was filled with seemingly endless tears, Larry stayed up late as Carrie and their 6-year-old son Jack finally fell asleep.
“I decided right then and there that I needed to put a smile back on my wife’s face and do something to make my son someday understand what had happened,” he says. “We had just been struck so randomly by this horrible thing and the only thing I could think of was to just as randomly strike back and make life wonderful for someone.”
And that is exactly what he did.
He decided to launch Savannah’s Stolen Moment Campaign, which had a simple, but ambitious mission.
The couple, who have been married for eight years and are both writers in Los Angeles, planned to raise $10,000 for a needy child – and specifically a girl who embodied Savannah’s irrepressible spirit – to give her and her family the trip of a lifetime. That was, Larry explains, the “Stolen Moment” that his family would never again have with Savannah.
“A stolen moment is just a simple moment that we take advantage of on a daily basis,” he says. “Like throwing coins in a fountain with your kid or letting them stay up past bedtime.”
The campaign, which ran for about eight weeks and ended the day their new baby, Dash, was born didn’t just reach the goal – it brought in almost $100,000.
“We couldn’t believe it,” he says. “We told everyone that anything over $10,000 would go to the girl’s college fund.”
While the campaign was going on, the Carrolls also encouraged people to experience a stolen moment with their child, take a picture, and hashtag #stolenmoments.
Finding The Young Girl
After the money was raised, it was time to find the girl. They conducted their search quietly.
“My wife said to me, ‘We have to go to Savannah, Georgia,’ ” Larry says. “It made sense because it was her name and we had never been to the city but we heard it was beautiful.”
The Carrolls packed up their family and flew to Georgia. Once in Savannah, they didn’t exactly have a perfectly worked-out plan.
At the end of their first day, they took shelter from a rain shower and ended up at Jumpin’ Jack’s Indoor Family Fun Center.
“It was completely empty, but the second the sun started to shine through the clouds, an adorable little girl walked in with her mom and some other children,” Carroll says.
That girl was 4-year-old Isabella Williams, who wandered over by chance to Jack.
“There was this instant connection,” Larry says. It went both ways.
“The kids were inseparable,” Isabella’s mother, Sarah Williams, 34, tells PEOPLE. “I started talking to Larry and Carrie and we were all just having a great time.”
Williams, a caregiver for the elderly who has five children, had no clue that the Carrolls were about to change her life.
“It didn’t take long for us to see that she was an amazing mother who loved her children and didn’t have it easy financially,” says Larry. “We decided that she was the one.”
They sat Sarah down and as soon as they started telling her their story, everyone was in tears. Then, they made her their offer. She accepted, overflowing with gratitude.
After the emotional and unexpected day, the two families went out to dinner and celebrated the tenth birthday of Isabella’s brother Troy.
“It was beautiful,” Williams says. “We even spent the next day together which was Thanksgiving. There is a lot to be thankful for.”
Celebrating Her Life
This experience has helped the Carrolls too.
“We loved our daughter so much and there is no happy ending to this story,” Larry says. “But knowing that there is another little girl out there somewhere who is living her life and is happy and is having the days Savannah should have had, helps a little bit.”
Now that they have helped one little girl, they are determined to do it again.
“We want to do this every April,” Larry says. “Maybe year after year we can keep Savannah’s influence alive.”