On June 4, 2019, 3-year-old River Kelly Smith slipped silently into the family swimming pool and drowned. It was a tragedy that his family feels as viscerally today as on the day it occurred.
But instead of tearing the family apart — as happens for so many families — River’s death inspired his parents to help others from ever experiencing the pain they’ve lived with for nearly three years.
Since the day that the unthinkable happened to them, River’s parents, country music singer Ranger Smith, his wife Amber, and their children London and Lincoln, have become advocates for children’s water safety.
Documenting their family’s journey on their Youtube channel, social media sites, and through numerous television interviews, River’s grieving parents have become vocal proponents for drowning awareness and prevention.
Two weeks after the incident, Ranger explained what happened in a Youtube video.
“The night of the accident, I was with all three kids, and we were all in the backyard. London and I were playing gymnastics; the boys were playing a water gun fight. The events that happened took — and this is really important to understand for everyone, especially parents — this whole thing took roughly 30 seconds.
We have a pool gate. We have a fence that we built. As soon as we moved into this house, we built a fence with a child lock on the gate. We take that very seriously.
During this sequence of events — and as many times as I’ve gone through these events in my head, which has been a million — River found a way to accomplish the impossible, several times.
How he got in there — we have some theories. The other really important thing to talk about it how quiet this whole thing happened.
There was silence. I was 15 feet from the gate, which is something that will haunt me the rest of my life. I was 15 feet from that water, doing gymnastics.
Him getting there is an almost impossible feat. Him silently getting into the water is beyond any of us understanding.
The other thing is, he was a swimmer. We swam every day. He was around that pool every single day of a long Texas summer.
Somebody had to be responsible, and it was me. As a parent, I look back on that day and there’s a million things I could have done just a little bit different.
Anditwouldhavebeenadifferentoutcome.” The grief, terrible feeling of responsibility, and guilt are things that Ranger thinks he will feel for the rest of his life. Though he got to his little boy within seconds, and though he and Amber continued CPR for the agonizing 10 minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive, and though the EMTs were able to get River’s heart beating, he had suffered catastrophic brain damage.
River was taken to Dell Children’s Medical Center in nearby Austin and taken off life support two days later. His organs were given to two recipients, the first step in what would become the Smith’s lifelong journey to try to find some purpose and meaning in River’s death. If their experience can help save lives, perhaps there is meaning in that.
In the years since, they have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through the sale commemorative T-shirts, the first $218,000 of which they donated to the children’s hospital that tried so hard to save their son. They established a permanent River Kelly Fund to support a variety of causes, and that charity work is one way they navigate their grief.
Today, Ranger and Amber have three living children. The youngest, just 8-months old, is Maverick Beckham, and he has just completed his first round of Infant Swim Rescue classes — life-saving lessons that can help save babies’ lives. Ranger and Amber are very proud of Maverick’s achievement and are big proponents of ISR lessons.
In April, they posted a video and photos of Maverick completing a successful ISR lesson on their Instagram Feed. Wearing clothing and a diaper, Maverick falls into the pool, turns, rotates, finds air, breathes, and cries.
Amber writes: “A crying baby is a breathing baby! Guys, I get it. It can seem scary when you see a video of a crying baby being led to fall into a body of water. You know what’s scarier and more painful? Losing a child to a fatal drowning. This wasn’t easy for me. Seeing him cry those first few lessons, I wanted to scoop him right up, but I trusted the process and I watched as it worked every step of the way! We made the decision to give Maverick the skills he needed to find the air, the skills River needed that we didn’t know about, and my goodness, he did it!!
And he wasn’t afraid of our instructor, or the water, and he smiled the biggest smiles after, so I could do hard things for 10 minutes to give our son the skills he needs.
@infantswimmingresource has highly trained professionals teaching these lessons with over 45 years of experience and 8 million completed lessons. They don’t just throw them in. They are trained to work with behaviors of each individual child. They are patient. They are kind. They are gentle. They are saving lives.
Before you make any snap judgements about something that seems unusual to you, I beg you, from a mother who has lost a child to drowning, check out the lessons and instructors for yourselves. I am truly amazed at what Maverick has accomplished in such a short time. I’m already so hopeful, excited and empowered for the next phase.”
Both Amber and Granger caution that no one should attempt ISR without a trained instructor.
Ranger adds: Drowning is the #1 accidental death of children age 4 and under. Thinking that adult supervision is enough is an absolutely DEADLY miscalculation. Hear me. I used to think that too. As summer approaches: Supervise, install a fence, install a pool alarm, never use floaties, always use a Coast Guard approved life jacket on open water, enroll kids in ISR.
If not, fill your pool with dirt and plant a garden. This goes for neighbors, grandparents, hotels and public pools. Hear me.
Spread the word. River’s life mattered. He’s saving thousands of others.
River Kelly Smith drowned in the family swimming pool on June 4, 2019. Image credit: Riverkellyfund.org.