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Grieving Mom Turns 3-Year-Old Son's Death Into Visual Reminder for All

Photograph by Nicole Salvaggio Hughes

Nicole Salvaggio Hughes is not the same woman she was a month ago. In fact, she will probably never be the same again. On June 11, her 3-year-old son, Levi Richard Hughes, took his last family vacation after drowning in a pool moments after leaving her side.

"These are the final pictures I have of my son," she wrote on Facebook. "In every single one, he is wearing a puddle jumper or life jacket."

Photograph by Nicole Salvaggio Hughes

Her heartbreaking post went on to say that she was carrying him in her arms just hours before the tragedy—"past the pools, in a house where we have vacationed every June for seven years."

Like most moms, Hughes repeatedly questioned her son's knowledge of water safety—reminding him again and again not to go near the pool without adult supervision.

"I asked him, again, for the hundredth time, at least: 'Levi, do you ever get in the water without Mama? Ever?' He said immediately and seriously, as we have discussed numerous times: 'Mama, no way. Then, you won’t get to see me again and we will be so sad.'"

Sadly, Levi’s haunting words were the last that Hughes would ever hear from her son.

"I had just given him half of a brownie into his bowl of Cheeto puffs," she wrote. "The other half of the brownie was still in my mouth when I jumped into the pool. Mere minutes."

By the time she spotted his bright yellow crab-hunting shirt floating in the deep end of the pool, it was too late. Despite efforts to save him, Levi passed away after being airlifted to Mobile Children’s Hospital.

Hours after her son's death, Hughes told Knox News that she came up with a plan to hold parents accountable while helping to prevent future drownings.

"I had this idea to essentially create a tag system—'Tag, you're it; you're in charge,'" she said. Her initial concept quickly led to a tangible tag, about the size of a credit card, that parents or guardians could wear around their necks to remind them that they are the chosen one—the designated supervisor of a child.

"It weighs just enough to remind you ... if you think, 'Oh, let me run up and just go start dinner' or you're at a beach house and you're unloading the car and the kids aren't even swimming—that's when it happens, that's when 70 percent of drownings happen, during those times,” Hughes said. "So, you kind of move, and you feel it and think, 'Oh, that's right, I'm in charge. I'm the designated supervisor of our children.'"

Since then, the popularity of the Water Guardians: Levi’s Legacy tag has turned into a viral sensation, and Hughes could not be more grateful to those supporting her cause.

"Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I can’t ever sleep anymore. But, last night was different," she wrote on the Water Guardians Facebook page. “I was not reliving his final moments over and over or wondering how I would ever see M&M’s and not want to burst into tears," she wrote. "Last night, I was so overwhelmed with gratitude that people are SUPPORTING this idea."

Hughes told Mom.me that she hopes her story gets people to listen. "It’s so quick," she said. "Why aren’t we talking about it? I just don’t understand."

Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death for children ages 1 to 4 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and we all know how quickly a child can wander off.

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