Pekin girl accidentally shot dies on her birthday

By Holly Eitenmiller For Chronicle Media

Haylee Garrison of Pekin was accidentally shot April 7.

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.”

Family and friends of Haylee Garrison are devastated by the loss of a girl who they called a “sunbeam.” Haylee died on her birthday as a result of an accidental gunshot April 7. She remained unresponsive after the incident and was on life support at OSF St. Francis Medical Center until the morning of April 11. Haylee will give life to others, as her parents allowed her to be an organ donor.(Photo by Holly Eitenmiller/ for Chronicle Media)

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.

As Haylee Garrison’s family remained by her side at OSF St. Francis Center in Peoria, neighbors and friends left notes and mementos on the doorstep of Haylee’s home, also signing a bright pink poster board, which read, “Goodbye My Best Friend Haylee”.(Photo by Holly Eitenmiller/ for Chronicle Media)

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.

Haylee Garrison’s cousin, Braylin, 8, helps her family inflate balloons Tuesday for her cousin’s celebration of life. Like many relatives and neighborhood children, Braylin played often with Haylee, and they were very close.(Photo by Holly Eitenmiller/ for Chronicle Media)

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.

There was barely a breeze at sunset on Haylee Garrison’s 9th birthday celebration April 11. Then, just as friends and family simultaneously released hundreds of balloons, a slight wind carried most of them into the branches of a tree in her Pekin yard. Haylee died earlier that day as a result of an accidental gunshot wound on April 7. (Photo by Holly Eitenmiller/ for Chronicle Media)

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.