Local mom raises awareness, wins award after son's drowning

Melissa Zirkle, pictured here with son Quandrel Liggans and a photo of son Jermaine Zirkle, who died in Lake Erie in 2013. Zirkle was recently a speaker at the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium 2016 Conference in Cleveland, where she was also honored as the GLWSC’s Water Safety Superhero of the Year.

Melissa Zirkle draws a sharp breath before she talks about July 12, 2013 — the day her son Jermaine died in Lake Erie while swimming with friends.

It never gets easier, Zirkle said, talking about every moment of that day, about sending her son out to swim instead of letting him play video games inside, about holding a level as she finished a home improvement project and hearing the screams from the lakefront outside.

But Zirkle said she will not stop talking about it, pushing for water safety education on the Great Lakes, about Jermaine. In April, Zirkle was a guest speaker at the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium 2016 Conference in Cleveland — her first major public speaking event about Jermaine’s accident and the importance of local water safety education.

Zirkle was also honored as the GLWSC’s Water Safety Superhero of the Year.

“It was really amazing because the GLWSC actually held the conference in Ohio this year to honor Jermaine,” she said. “This was my first public speech, and if it weren’t for Jamie Racklyeft, I don’t think I could have done it. Even though I lost a lot of sleep and almost backed out of it.”

Zirkle said without Racklyeft, she would have likely backed out of doing the speech, and she would have regretted it. Racklyeft, who is the University of Michigan Communication Strategist and rip current survivor, was also a speaker at the conference.

For Zirkle, the opportunity to save lives and to give her son a legacy through education and water safety trumped her fear of speaking in public.

In her speech, Zirkle didn’t back away from the tragic details of Jermaine’s death. 

“Sixty long hours were spent looking for Jermaine,” she said. “Aircraft, boats, jet skis, divers, even cadaver dogs, and so many strangers, searching, praying and hoping. Jermaine resurfaced on his own. He was spotted by his mama within seconds of resurfacing.”

Zirkle said she saw Jermaine’s signature afro hair in the water, and she knew he was gone.

“We had our precious Jermaine back. Not the way we wanted, but we no longer had to worry or wonder where he was, or what would become. I could finally lay his young body to rest. I got to kiss Jermaine for the last time,” she said. “After that last kiss, I promised him that I’d do everything I could to keep this senseless tragedy from ever happened again. His accidental death would not be in vain.”

Zirkle has been honored by many organizations for her work with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, Inc. The GLSRP is a chapter of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. The GLSRP tracks drowning statistics in the Great Lakes, teaches water safety classes, hosts open water surf lifeguard certification training, and works with family and friends of Great Lakes drowning victims to promote water safety.

For more information, to attend a water safety class, or to sponsor local water safety classes, visit http://glsrp.org.