A Moment That Changed Everything

River Kelly Fund Building a Legacy of Healing & Hope

It was a mild summer afternoon in 2019, not unlike many others in the Smith household. The children were running around the backyard; squeals of laughter filling the air. Country singer and dad, Granger, was helping his daughter with her gymnastics just 15 feet away from their backyard pool. Less than five minutes later, their world shattered. 

Three-year-old River had inexplicably made his way past the locked pool gate and slipped into the swimming pool while trying to fill up a water gun. No splash. No sound. In the blink of an eye, the Smith family lost their sweet, independent, funny boy. 

“Out of 12 hours of the day, we think about him ten of those hours,” say parents Granger and Amber from their Georgetown home. “He’s always on our minds.” 

River Kelly lived each one of his three years (or 1,000 days) on this earth to the fullest. His red hair could be seen flying as he raced his go kart one minute, or he was completely contented in the living room with his toy trucks the next. His favorite pastime, the Smiths say, was making the people around him laugh, especially his brother, Lincoln, and sister, London. 

“He and his brother couldn’t sleep in the same bed because River would keep Lincoln up laughing,” remembers Granger, smiling at the memory. 

Nearly two years later, the memory of River still brings tears. But now, at least, those tears are mixed with some smiles, although it has taken quite a while to get there. For mom Amber, watching videos or looking at pictures of River has been part of her healing process. She even takes time to reflect on his memory each night before bed. 

For Granger, the grieving process has been a bit different. “It’s still tough for me; before Amber sends me a picture or something with River, she’ll send me a text that says, ‘River Warning’, so I’m prepared.” 

THE JOURNEY

Nothing could have prepared the couple for the tragic events that unfolded on that warm June day. After determining River had zero percent chance of surviving the accident, the couple made the decision to donate his organs. The family would later find out River’s donation saved two lives—a 49-year-old woman and a 53-year-old man. 

“Donating his organs was our first step toward healing,” affirms Amber. “Knowing he saved two lives—that’s just how we wanted River’s legacy to live on, helping others.” 

Another step toward their healing was establishing the River Kelly Fund, which has raised more than $400,000 for various charities. The Fund challenges people to ‘Live Like Riv’ by doing their most good and living each day to its fullest. 

The River Fund is meant to contribute to a wide variety of charities, including children and family ministries, medicine, arts and culture, Veterans, first responders, and wildlife preservation. However, there are a couple of nonprofits that are near and dear to the family’s heart. 

“Dell Children’s hospital took such great care of us when River was there (after the drowning),” says Amber. “And we love BiG (Brookwood in Georgetown). It’s such a great ministry for adults with disabilities. But there are so many great organizations we want to give to.” 

LOOKING FORWARD (and up)

While plans for the Fund are still in their infancy, the couple want it to continue to grow so River’s legacy can live through the various charities it benefits. 

“We are living day by day, so we don’t have a big bold plan right now for the Fund,” explains Amber. “Our hope is just that it continues to help people and organizations.” 

As the second anniversary of River’s death draws near, the family keeps that same philosophy—living each day fully. But on that day, what the Smiths call his Angelversary, they try to get through it “as quickly as possible.” Still, Amber says the feelings of pain are tempered by something bigger. “We try to remember that our worst day was his best day, because he got to go home to Jesus.” 

It’s that deep-rooted Christian faith that has made each day a little less painful. After the accident, the couple recommitted to their faith, saying that today they are different people even than when the tragedy occurred.  “We’ve been to counseling, we’ve done it all, but the one thing that has gotten us through this is our faith in God,” Granger says. “I can’t give anything or anyone credit for our being here today other than Him.” 

“He is sovereign,” Amber adds. “There is hope in the Lord Jesus. Knowing that has sustained us even in our darkest times.” 

As for other holidays, those are still very bittersweet. On his birthday last year, the family shared a cake and released butterflies and balloons to remember him. Both Granger and Amber choose to remember their boy exactly as he was—fiery, fun, full of life and adventure. A little boy, frozen in time. 

“We will always celebrate him, but the candle on the cake will always be a number three. Because that’s who he was, a three-year-old boy.”  

With each passing day, Granger and Amber find new ways to experience joy, something that was not always easy in the wake of River’s passing. As they speak to countless families who have lost children, they realize life does continue, but part of them will always be tied to their child.  “Amber has spoken to 60-year-old mothers who lost children at a young age and they still remember them vividly,” shares Granger. “He will always be with us.” 

In speaking with people and dealing with their own grief, the Smiths have adopted a philosophy: savor the moment. 

“None of us are promised tomorrow,” they say. “So, hold your loved ones tight. Give your kids that extra scoop of ice cream. Enjoy the chaos around you. We wish we had just one more loud, crazy day with River.” 

Drowning Prevention Tips from Granger & Amber Smith 
“We thought we did everything right,” says Granger, “but drowning protection is a multi-tiered process.” 

In light of their tragic loss, the Smiths would like you to keep the following items in mind as you prepare for the return to summer. 

  • First, remember drowning is fast and silent, and most drownings happen during “non swim” times.
  • Install pool gates around the perimeter
    of your home pool. 
  • Make sure to add a pool and/or gate alarm. 
  • Have children take survival swim lessons. 
  • Keep eyes on children at all times. 
  • Don’t rely on flotation devices, which can instill
    a false sense of security in young children. 
  • Do not keep toys in the pool; children are curious and may try to retrieve or play with them. 
  • Get CPR certified. 
  • Have emergency numbers easily on-hand. 

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