‘He Was Like Sunshine’ Beloved Student Drowns At Family Outing
‘He Was Like Sunshine’
Beloved Student Drowns At Family Outing
By Gary G. Toms
On the morning of July 10, The Wave sat down with the McDonald family, who are long time residents of the Far Rockaway community. During that time, they fought hard to find words to describe the incident that claimed the life of their 16-year old son, Jermel Kevin Johnson, who was found at the bottom of a pool at Camp Avnet, in Dix Hills, only a few days earlier. The room was still, and the pain was etched in the faces of both mother and father. After a few seconds, Darren McDonald, the boy’s father, who works as an assistant to the Superintendent of Schools in Long Beach, began to reflect on her son’s death.
"We are still struggling to understand what happened. It’s crazy. We got together with some other people from the job, and their kids, and we barbecued and were having a good time. Within a matter of minutes, something went terribly wrong." he said.
The father noted that while Tracey McDonald, mother of the victim, was in a smaller pool with her nieces and nephews, she suddenly became alarmed and told her husband to go and check on Jermel.
"She may have been reacting to the fact that one of the kids was screaming for help, but it wasn’t taken seriously because the kids were joking around from the time they got into the pool," said the father.
"We realized that there was a problem, when we saw other kids, including Jermel, jumping in to save a boy that was having problems in the water. They managed to get the boy out of the pool, and he ended up okay. When everybody looked around, they noticed that Jermel was missing. The next thing I remember is someone saying that Jermel was lying at the bottom of the pool."
The frantic parents then jumped in and pulled their son’s body from 10-foot section of the pool. They performed CPR until emergency service personnel arrived. The situation escalated as Tracey McDonald, overcome with emotion, began to experience seizures and passed out as her son was being worked on.
"I was totally beside myself, as you could imagine. I was watching the EMS guys working on my son, and then they had to tend to my wife at the same time. I know God held me together," the father said.
The EMS workers were able to stabilize the mother, but after working 20 to 30 minutes on Jermel (which includes the time that the parents worked on him) they realized they could do nothing more to help him.
The boy’s mother was now staring straight ahead, as if she were in a state of disbelief, while her husband clasped his hands tightly. He stood up and began to make his way up a nearby staircase. Tracey, her eyes now tearing, remains silent. The father returns and hands over a plaque. It reads, "The Michael Conrad Buckley Award – Most Improved Swimmer 1998 – Jermel Kevin McDonald."
"You see that? My son was a very good swimmer, but there were reports to the contrary in some news items. Statements were made that were not quite true, and I want to take this moment to set the record straight. My son was a good swimmer. I want people to know that," said the grieving father.
Another discrepancy that was pointed out by the McDonald’s was that news reports claimed the barbecue and pool party was hosted by the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach.
"This was not a school function in any way. This was a group of people getting together, with their families, for a day of fun. The gathering had nothing to do with the school, and I want to make that very clear," he said.
Since the death of their son, many of Jermel’s teachers, from P.S. 197 and Far Rockaway High School, have sent condolences to the family and have stopped by the home to comfort them.
"Some of Jermel’s P.S. 197 elementary school teachers stopped by with food, cards and flowers. They loved him, as a person and a student. I’ve also spoken to administrators at Far Rockaway High School, and they said they would be calling me back. He was a very special child to all of them," the mother said.
Tracey stated that a bond was formed between Jermel and his teachers from junior high school, when he nearly died after being struck by a school mini-bus back in 1995.
The father stated, "He was such a good kid. He was the best, and his teachers were there for him during the bus accident. They were so supportive. They were determined to help him get through that."
When asked to describe their son, they offered a warm smile and said that he was very active in the Macedonia Baptist Church, and that he was being prepared for deaconship. They continued by speaking of his love for school and basketball. He was a big fan of Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, Shaq and Kobe Bryant, and he enjoyed playing video games.
The patriarch said that Jermel’s siblings (two brothers and a sister) were trying to deal with the tragedy for now, but he anticipates that they will become very emotional at their brother’s funeral. Jermel’s older brother, Willie, 20, a member of the United States Navy, took leave in order to attend his brother’s funeral.
"He was like sunshine," said the mother. "I’m not mourning my son. I mourned him in 1995. He was revived back then, and God left him here to complete what he was put here to do, which was bring people together and be a ray of light in people’s lives. I’m looking at this as a celebration of his life."
"His death was tragic, but it has brought people together and healed old wounds," stated Jermel’s father. "I am speaking to people now that I have not spoken to in years, for various reasons. We have come together to mourn the loss of my son, and I cannot state how much I appreciate them reaching out to me."
The Wave asked the parents what they would say to their son if they could do so one last time. They were silent for several seconds, and after fighting tears they each said the following.
"That I love him, that he was a sweet child, and that I miss him dearly. There was no one like him. He will always be remembered for his ever-present smile. Everyone that knew him will tell you that," Tracey said.
"I would tell him I love him, and let him know that I will always be there for him. He was not just my son. Jermel was my best friend. I was behind him in every decision he made, and I would tell him how proud I was of him," stated the father.
A memorial service for Jermel Kevin McDonald will be held on Saturday, July 13, from 9 to 11 a.m., at the Macedonia Baptist Church (330 Beach 67 Street). Funeral services will be held from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Pinelawn Cemetery in Long Island, under the direction of Roy L. Gilmore Funeral Home, Inc.