Two years ago, Amy Voelker was enjoying a getaway with her extended family at a rental house in Redington Beach, Florida -- and a second meeting with her four-month-old grandson. "I had only seen the baby once," Voelker said, "and was looking forward to spending more time with him -- with everyone, all together."
The party included her husband of 20 years, Elroy "Roy" McConnell II; their son Kelly, 19, and his girlfriend; Amy's stepsons, Roy III, 28, and Nathan, 24, and their wives; Nate's two-year-old daughter; and Roy III's new baby. Photos of the weekend capture a happy afternoon on the beach, the younger men in swim trunks playing football on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.
And then the nightmare began. Voelker's husband and three sons had gone to see a late-night movie while the women watched a DVD and went to bed. At around 4 a.m., one of Voelker's daughters-in-law awoke to discover the men hadn't returned. Over the next two-and-a-half hours, the frantic women called the men's cell phones, the police, hospital emergency rooms, anything they could think of. They found an online news report about a bad accident but couldn't determine the make of the cars involved from the photo.
Voelker was on the phone for the fourth time with local police when the officer on the line asked her to open the front door for the victim support team, which confirmed the worst: All four men were dead, killed by a drunk driver who ran a red light and crashed into their Ford Fusion.
"We knew it; we just knew it," Voelker said.
What followed was a blur. Charges were filed against the 20-year-old driver of the other car. Those days in court were among the hardest, Voelker said. She and her husband's former wife -- the biological mother of the two older boys -- sat shoulder-to-shoulder, supporting one another. The driver eventually changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to 44 years in jail.
The ensuing days ran together, the only common thread her constant grief, said Voelker. It was hard to get out of bed some days, and at times even the love and support she was getting felt overwhelming. Voelker said her church family and her employer -- the University of Central Florida -- were "just terrific," understanding both her need to take time off and to get back into the groove of normalcy. On some days she would go to work, but just not be able to get through the day. One daughter-in-law and her youngest son's girlfriend stayed around for a month or so. The three women "medicated with food," Voelker said, and eventually joined Weight Watchers together.
Voelker knew that exercise helps heal both body and mind -- her husband had participated in races and triathlons, and was a regular gym rat. In fact, he had persuaded her to join him there in the months before he died, and she began getting into shape. But after the accident, she couldn't bring herself to go back.
"It was just too hard," she said.
Then one day, Voelker was mindlessly thumbing through the AARP magazine -- she had just turned 50 and received her first issue -- when she noticed an ad for a "Take Charge of Your Future" contest the organization was running. It seemed to "speak" to her, she said, and on something of a lark, she penned a 300-word essay and sent it in. The prize: a personal trainer to help her meet her fitness and life goals.
Voelker won. "I never won anything," she said, and her shock was enough of a jolt to motivate her. She decided to begin training for the Roy McConnell Mango Sprint Triathlon -- a race that was renamed for her husband, who had completed it several times.
In her contest entry, Voelker wrote that she not only wanted a fitness makeover, she wanted to use that newfound fitness to pursue her goal of helping others understand the consequences of drunk driving. She joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and expects to do more public appearances once she is in better physical shape. With just six weeks of training under her belt, Voelker said she already feeling stronger, lost some weight and feels better emotionally.
Through exercise and training and the support of friends and family, Voelker has found a new vision of herself, she said. "I'm able to look forward." As for the man responsible for killing her family, she feels it's important for her to forgive him.
"I'm not 100 percent there yet, but I know it's important for me to forgive him," she said. "If I didn't, I would be allowing someone to have control over me."