Grieving Mom Aims to Save Other Children After 3-Year-Old Son Drowns: 'It Was Unimaginable'

Just a month after her 3-year-old drowned, Nicole Hughes started the non-profit, Levi's Legacy

A mom from Tennesee is hoping to educate parents and save the lives of other children after her toddler drowned in a pool, despite her constant awareness of water safety.

The family summer getaway to Fort Morgan, Alabama, had become a yearly tradition for Nicole Hughes and her husband, Jonathan, and their three children — Lily, 9, Reese, 5, and Levi, 3. Over the last several years, the family has returned to the beach house they share with the families of their five close friends, where their days would be filled with kite-flying and crab hunting along the beach.

Courtesy Nicole Hughes

But on the night of June 10, as the families readied for another crab hunting adventure, Levi asked his mother for Cheetos before running off to play with the other kids on the couches in the house. In what only seemed like a matter of moments, Hughes — who has always been conscious of water safety — placed a brownie and a handful of chips in a bowl, and then instinctively walked to the balcony to check the pool before handing the snacks to Levi. That’s when she saw her son, still wearing his yellow crab hunting shirt, face down in the deep end of the pool.

“I didn’t even know he was missing. That’s how short it was. It wasn’t even long enough for me to actually know that he was missing,” Hughes, from Blountville, tells PEOPLE. “I deliberately looked over the rails into the water not expecting to actually see anything.”

Courtesy Nicole Hughes

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In what seemed like a blink of an eye, Levi had gone out the door, ventured downstairs and gotten into the pool. Though Hughes had preached water safety to her children and had Levi wear a life jacket any time he was by water and signing up her two daughters for swimming classes, she found herself confronting a parent’s worst nightmare.

“I ran down the stairs screaming as loud as I could and jumped in the water. One of our friends had come out, then all of our friends poured out of the room cause I was screaming,” Hughes recalls. “One of them jumped over the balcony and into the water and we reached Levi at the same time.”

The fathers who were staying at the beach house were all physicians, and they moved quickly to try to save Levi by performing CPR and using an intubation kit that was on hand. Levi was soon airlifted to Mobile Children’s Hospital after they physicians were able to get a pulse, but he was pronounced dead early the next morning.

“In those split seconds after I saw him, it was intermingled with shock and disbelief. That’s what I kept thinking, how did he just drown? I don’t understand,” Hughes says. “I did not know that drowning was this quiet and this silent.”

Drowning remains the top killer of children age 1 to 4, and is the second leading cause of death of children age 1 to 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The 19-month-old daughter of Olympian Bode Miller drowned in a pool in California while the family was attending a party at a neighbor’s house in early June. His wife, Morgan Beck Miller, recently spoke out about water safety in an emotional Instagram post.

Courtesy Nicole Hughes

Through her pain, Hughes began thinking of how she could have prevented Levi’s death. As she contemplated the scenarios, she thought came up with an idea that may save other children — utilizing a card that would designate a specific adult to watch children any time there is water around. While wearing the card, which would be attached to a lanyard, the adult would be only tasked with supervision and nothing else, until another adult “tags” themselves in and assumes the responsibility.

After preparing for Levi’s funeral, Hughes went to work.

“When I looked over and saw him, it was unimaginable. I could never, ever, wish that feeling on anybody. It was horrific,” she explains. “That was my motivation, to be fueled by this grief and also by anger… At first, I thought I should wait to get started until I’m not sad or until I have more time. But when am I ever not going to be sad?”

Within three weeks of Levi’s death, Hughes created the American Lifeguard Association-approved Water Guardian card, which reminds designated adults that “constant supervision is the most effective way to prevent drowning.” Hughes also established a nonprofit, called Levi’s Legacy, raise awareness around water safety.

Hundreds of Water Guardian tags, which are available on the Levi’s Legacy website, have been sold since then, Hughes says.

Levi's Legacy

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Hughes says she is comforted by the thought that another child’s life may be saved from their horrific experience. While the family still feels the excruciating pain of Levi’s loss, Hughes says they’re going to do their best to continue to live a life of happiness, in tribute to her son.

“I was cleaning out the car last night and I found his backup pair of shoes in the backseat, and my heart stopped. He’s never going to wear them again,” Hughes says. “But we’re choosing to live a life in the midst of this tragedy. Because not living isn’t going to bring him back. So, we’re choosing to live, and we’re moving forward and looking for the goodness that is still around in the world.”

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