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."
The McConnell Men
The McConnell Men celebrate Kelly's high school graduation in Orlando, Fla., June 2009, the year before all four were killed by a drunk driver. From left to right: Nathan McConnell; Elroy (Roy) McConnell; Kelly McConnell, and Elroy (Roy) McConnell III.
Amy and Kelly
Amy Voelker and son Kelly at his high school graduation in Orlando, Fla. in June 2009.
Kelly and Celine, 2009
Kelly and girlfriend Celine Parietti at a University of Miami football game in Miami, Fla. in 2009. Kelly was killed by a drunk driver the summer after his freshman year.
Kelly McConnell at Redington Beach, Fla. on July 30, 2010, his 19th birthday. All the McConnell boys played football through high school, "so they played a little for fun that last day on the beach," mom Amy Voelker says. Kelly was killed by a drunk driver that weekend.
Roy with Roy III
Roy McConnell with his oldest son, Roy III, at his graduation from Louisiana College in Alexandria, La.
Roy, Roy III, Roy IV, And Kelly, April 2010
Roy McConnell (center) went with his wife Amy Voelker and son Kelly (right) to Louisiana in April 2010 to see his son Roy III (left) and newborn grandson, Roy IV. The three men and Roy's other son were killed by a drunk driver in July 2010.
Roy and Roy IV, July 30, 2010
Roy McConnell and his grandson Roy IV at the beach house the family rented in Redington Beach, Fla. on July 30. Roy was killed by a drunk driver that weekend.
Nathan McConnell playing football at Redington Beach, Fla.; he was killed by a drunk driver the same weekend. He was married with a two-year-old daughter.
Amy and Grandson At Zoo
Amy Voelker with Roy III's son at the zoo.
Amy And Roy, Ironman Triathlon, November 2009
Amy cheers on Roy as he does the running segment of the Beach to Battleship Ironman Triathlon in North Carolina, November 2009.
Roy McConnell biking in a local triathlon at Baldwin Park, Orlando, Fla.
Amy and Roy
Amy Voelker and husband Roy McConnell in Boston in 2009.
The McConnell Men
The McConnell Men were buried together in Gotha, Fla.; the balloon and flowers are in remembrance of Kelly's birthday, July 30, 2011.
Amy At Walk Like MADD 2012
Mothers Against Drunk Drivers holds an annual 5K walk to "celebrate creating a brighter future without drunk driving and underage drinking," <a href="http://support.madd.org/site/PageServer?pagename=wp1_homepage">according to the organization's website</a>. Last year, 10,839 people died in drunk-driving crashes - one every 50 minutes, according to MADD. One in three people will be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetime, and teen alcohol use kills about 6,000 people each year, more than all illegal drugs combined.
Amy in Cashel, Ireland, June 2011