"We are trying to make something positive out of a horrible situation. It's what Emily would have wanted," Joe Fedorko tells PEOPLE

By Rose Minutaglio
Updated September 03, 2015 10:55 AM
Abby Shea

On a warm summer day last August, 16-year-old Emily Fedorko took off with friends for a fun day of tubing in the waters of Long Island Sound near Greenwich, Connecticut.

While skimming the lake in an intertube that was tethered to a powerboat, she and a friend fell into the water. The driver of the 21-foot powerboat turned to pick them up, but failed to detect them in the water – and they were struck by the boat’s propeller.

Emily was killed in the incident, while her friend suffered serious injuries.

“This was the most tragic thing that could have happened. Unfortunately, it happened to our daughter,” Emily’s mother Pam Fedorko tells PEOPLE.

After the loss of their beloved daughter, Pam and her husband Joe Fedorko decided to honor Emily’s memory by advocating for water safety awareness through the Emily Catherine Fedorko Foundation and “Emily’s Law,” which mandates that all boat operators take a boating safety course and be at least 16 years of age. The law was passed in the state of Connecticut on June 4.

“She died that day doing something that she loved,” Pam, 47, tells PEOPLE. “She wouldn’t want people not to go out and have fun on the water – she would want them to be educated and to be safe. That’s what we’re trying to do. We want people to go out on the water, but to be safe while enjoying it.”

The Fedorkos came up with the idea for ECFF, a 501c3 non-profit organization that educates teens and adults on safe boating practices, only two days after they lost their “bubbly” daughter.

“Emily couldn’t stop smiling when she was on the water, it was a big part of her life and it’s still a big part of our lives,” Pam says. “The tragic accident could have been avoided if there had been more education out there. We started the foundation to honor Emily’s life and to spread awareness of the importance of towing safety.”

Through the foundation, Joe and Pam have initiated positive changes in the world of Connecticut boating and watersports – they updated the state boater’s guide to incorporate a section on towing techniques, invested money to create a correct tubing tutorial video for the Water Sports Industry Association and have handed out thousands of safety packets that explain safe tubing and boat operating practices.

Joe says that the foundation has brought some peace to the family after Emily’s death.

“It’s been therapeutic for us to mourn the loss of her through this foundation,” Joe, 48, tells PEOPLE. “We are trying to make something positive out of a horrible situation. It’s what Emily would have wanted.”

On October 1, “Emily’s Law,” which was unanimously voted in by the Connecticut Senate and House of Representatives in January, will go into effect.

“They received a tremendous amount of support for this bill, it was a no-brainer,” State Sen. Scott Frantz tells PEOPLE. “The previous age required to operate a boat in the state was 12 years old, which was crazy and unsafe. Raising the minimum towing age by four years and requiring some sort of boating safety education is a huge step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot to be done.”

“This town is so supportive of the Fedorko family,” Greenwich Selectman and local paramedic Drew Marzullo tells PEOPLE. “There’s no doubt that the tightening of these laws and the concern this family has shown for our community will in turn save lives – there’s no question.”

Twenty-one-year-old Nick Bancroft, who has been a summer launch driver for the Old Greenwich Yacht Club for two years, says he was on the scene when the accident occurred on August 6.

“This law will make our waters safer,” Bancroft, a Lehigh University junior, tells PEOPLE. “I know because I got my boaters license when I was 12, and looking back, I was definitely not ready to be operating a boat at that age. This way drivers will be more mature and a little smarter about the way that they drive.”

Joe says the driving force behind the foundation and their fierce determination to bring awareness to boating safety is an ever-present reminder that Emily would have wanted them to take a stand.

“It’s difficult to be reminded of the accident every time we advocate, but we know deep in our hearts this is something she would have wanted, expected even,” he says. “For us not to have done anything… she wouldn’t have liked that. She’s always with us.”

This was especially true on the morning of Emily’s funeral last year, when a sandbar in the shape of a heart appeared on the shoreline in front of the Fedorko’s beach home in Westbrook.

“It was a sign she gave to let us know she was okay,” says Pam. “She’s a very strong person in spirit. Someone sent us a picture of the sandbar while we were at her funeral, and it gave us some peace to know she was smiling down at us. The heart appeared every day that week.”

On September 24, the Fedorko family and other members of the Emily Catherine Fedorko Foundation will make an appearance at the Progressive Norwalk Boat Show in East Norwalk, Connecticut, where they will give hands-on training to show kids and adults proper towing techniques.

“Emily’s been here with us the entire time,” says her father. “There’s no question she would have wanted us to do this. We hope that we can help and make a difference. And hopefully prevent any further tragedies.”

For more information about the Emily Catherine Fedorko Foundation, go to emsway.org.

Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine