Family and friends are grieving the loss of a young Pekin girl who died on her birthday following a tragic gun accident.
Haylee Garrison, who turned 9 on April 11, was playing in a bedroom of her home April 7 with a cousin of the same age, when the two found a handgun. Haylee was accidentally shot in the throat and rushed to OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria around 9:30 p.m.
The blonde-haired girl remained unresponsive and on life support until she passed away at 10:32 a.m. April 11.
In those four days, as Haylee’s close family and friends grappled with the tragedy, Matt Green, the principal of L. E. Starke Primary School stepped in as a spokesperson for the family. Haylee attended third grade there.
Because spring break began April 10, Haylee’s birthday was celebrated by her classmates on Friday, April 7 where she was given a ribbon and a birthday hat. Green described Haylee as a “peaceful girl with a sweet spirit, who loved playing with dolls.”
Haylee’s parents, Terry and Veronica Garrison, invited family and friends and the community to their home the night of April 11 for a balloon release to celebrate their child’s birthday. Hundreds of visitors collected on the lawn and street 1802 Victoria Drive, including local firefighters and police officers.
Many were children; cousins and playmates of Haylee’s, carrying shining clusters of balloons that read, “Happy Birthday”, “I Love You”, and “We’ll Miss You.”
“She loved to play and sing with her cousins, and she was a girly-girl who loved red lipstick,” family friend Justin Robbins said before leading the group in prayer. “Haylee said she wanted to be an angel because they are the prettiest.”
Robbins sang Eric Clapton’s “No More Tears”, then, when the balloons were released moments later, rather than taking to the sky, a slight breeze lifted most of them into the branches of a massive tree in the family’s yard.
Hundreds of balloons clung to the branches in a burst of color that rendered the tearful crowd silent.
“This is beyond unbelievable. Haylee would have loved this. I know she’s looking down. She loved everybody,” Veronica Garrison said, thanking everyone for their support and compassion.
Earlier that morning, Veronica and Terry posted to Facebook Haylee’s birthday memory of last year, and wrote of their love for her, and the many pets she cared for, including a ferret, a cat, two dogs and a snail named “Gary”.
Haylee was an organ donor. Her parents made this decision as she was placed on life support, and waited until a recipient list was finalized, Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood said.
According to the American Transplant Foundation, “one deceased donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and can save and enhance more than 100 lives through the lifesaving and healing gift of tissue donation.”
Haylee’s donor flag was raised at the OSF St. Francis Medical Center campus the morning of her death, and remained there for three days before being lowered and given to the family.
For those who wish to make a donation in Haylee’s honor, a memorial fund has been established at Pekin Community Bank, as well as a Go Fund Me page.