Editor’s note: This is the fourth of five articles this week that explore the consequences of unintended shootings in Florida. Click the links here to access the series intro, Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.
Susan Van Allen’s pot of macaroni, tomato paste and beef sizzled in her Keystone Heights kitchen one evening, the smell of goulash – her son’s favorite meal – floating around her.
She felt his presence behind her. Adam Van Allen, already man-sized at 15, slumped on her, the embrace nearly too heavy for her to hold. But his weight somehow made her stronger.
Let him sit there as long as he wants to sit there.
“There’s days I’m glad I did that,” Van Allen says. “Then there’s some days I’m like, “‘Why didn’t you just take a minute more?’”
Adam often said things too profound for his age, said his mother, a corrections officer in Starke.
“Nanny?” he asked his grandmother once as a small child. “Do you think heaven is going to be boring?” Another time, his family asked him what he wanted to do as an adult.
“I’m not going to be around for very long,” he said.
Van Allen often thinks about those words and still feels his blond head resting on her shoulder. Around two weeks later, she was lying next to him in a hospital bed in Gainesville.
Typical yet gentlemanly
Van Allen sat on a bench at Keystone Heights Beach Park, the slope to the marshy lake dotted with first dates, children’s birthday parties and girls shrieking as they zip past the picnic tables.
She remembers coming there with her “Goober.” Her son was in many ways a typical boy. He played youth baseball as both a pitcher and a catcher. He vacuumed steak and chicken wings. He loved to be outside, from Florida lakes to Tennessee mountains.
But Adam was gentlemanly beyond his years. Once, when a new girl arrived at Bradford Middle School in Starke with a broken ankle, no one talked to her. No one, aside from Adam, his mother said. He left his classes early and arrived at the next one late, so he could carry her bookbag. Today, that girl has a backpack tattoo in his honor.
“It makes no sense for him to be taken,” Van Allen said, noting that Adam would go on to be very popular among girls and boys alike. “None at all. … He was a perfect human.”
A perfect human, and, as Michael Van Allen said, a goof.
Michael, a local probation officer, already had a son and daughter when he started dating Susan in 2006. He made mistakes as a young dad, and told himself he wouldn’t have another child. Then he met Adam, the blue-eyed 5-year-old kindergartener hiding behind his mother’s knees.
“He was knee high to a grasshopper,” Michael recalled with a chuckle about that day at the Hampton Elementary School carpool line. Adam’s biological father had been absent for some time, so Van Allen understood that he had to prove himself committed.
They bonded over football. Adam made Van Allen a Gator; Van Allen made Adam a Jaguar.
From his earliest days, Adam loved sports and the outdoors — like any other boy, his parents say. As he grew into an older child, he acted with a not-so-typical compassion, using his Facebook to share his thoughts about faith and write kind words about his family members. (Photos courtesy of Susan Van Allen)
A favorite memory: The two beating Adam’s older cousins in a paintball match in Baker County, the younger boy, 12 at the time, finishing them off with two loud and colorful splats.
“That was the most awesome thing,” Van Allen said.
The year before, dressed in their Sunday best, the family, including Van Allen’s two children from Tennessee, gathered for an adoption ceremony. The father figure became the father.
‘How am I gonna tell him no?’
Adam shimmied with his bag slung over his shoulder just before leaving home on Sept. 12, 2017, his mother recalls. He often danced when excited, and with Hurricane Irma having closed schools, he was spending the night at a friend’s house. Something tugged at Van Allen – the mother wasn’t sure why – but she couldn’t help but smile. How am I gonna tell him no?
He and his parents swung through the Hardy’s drive-thru and then left Adam at his friend’s house. In the rear mirror, she said, it seemed Adam was reaching for a hug as they drove away.
The next afternoon, while working, Susan felt something wasn’t right.
She and Adam had planned to visit her mother, who had suffered a recent stroke, at UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville that day. With Adam not having a cell phone, Van Allen called his friend and his friend’s parents to set a time to pick him up, she said. No one answered her calls.
Meanwhile, as Susan’s father left the hospital after visiting his wife, he heard a helicopter arriving overhead. It was the only life flight to Shands that day. His grandson was on board.
Susan was changing out of her work clothes around 4:45 when a Clay County sheriff’s deputy arrived. Michael answered the door.
“Your son has been shot,” the deputy said.
It must be Jack, his more reckless eldest son from Tennessee, Van Allen thought.
“Is he OK?” Van Allen responded.
“He’s been shot in the head,” the deputy replied, making it clear it was Adam who was hurt.
Michael rushed down the hall to the bedroom. “We gotta go,” he told Susan, before telling himself to remain hopeful. Most people survive one gunshot with proper care, he thought.
Why we reported this series: Unintentional shootings affect hundreds of U.S. children each year. From foolish teenage games to curious children finding a guardian’s guns, nearly one child per day is injured or killed in such a case. The ripples from these incidents have been felt from Gainesville to Tampa to Jacksonville. Florida’s safe storage laws, if strengthened, could prevent these tragedies, experts say. But where state and federal legislation may stall, county school districts and Florida activists across the spectrum of gun ideology are promoting the safe storage of firearms in hopes of better protecting families.
Susan couldn’t understand why Shands didn’t have Adam’s name listed when they arrived.
“You have to have him – you have to!” she said. “You just brought him on a life flight!”
A nurse finally told her Adam was listed under an alias due to the nature of his injury.
A small, older woman appeared silently next to the distraught mother. On the elevator ride from the emergency room to where Adam was in the intensive care unit, the stranger spoke of faith.
How we reported this series: To dig deeper into the lives of the children lost in Florida, WUFT News interviewed family members and friends affected most deeply. In addition to speaking with experts working at nonprofits and other organizations focusing on the matter at large, we also reviewed many public records and previous news stories about the cases specifically as well as unintended shootings across Florida and the country in general.
Van Allen said hours passed before she learned what happened to Adam: A friend had unintentionally shot him. According to a report following a Florida Department of Children and Families investigation, while in a make-believe airsoft gun battle, Adam hid beneath a blanket. The other boy then pointed a real handgun, which he thought was unloaded, at Adam. The real gun went off.
A hero’s sendoff
Adam died two days later in the ICU. Michael watched as three nurses entered the room in silence – they were like three angels, Michael said – and made it so Susan could lay next to her son in his bed. It was the first time she slept since he was admitted.
“That’s when I learned the true meaning of beautiful,” Michael said, “because there was nothing there but just her and him, and it was just beautiful, pure love and grief.”
Susan doesn’t really remember Adam’s funeral, most likely a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. But Michael does. To him, it all ended in a flash; he didn’t feel like it was real.
Adam was deeply committed to the Keystone Heights Junior/Senior High School color guard and ROTC, so his supervisors got special permission for him to be buried in his military uniform.
“He didn’t look like him,” Michael said. “He just didn’t look like him.”
His parents say Adam wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after high school. The boy was interested in the military, and Michael, a Navy veteran, had encouraged him – but it was not to be. Yet because of a decision he made a few months before, Adam still became a hero.
Not long before his death, his mother recalls watching Adam answering the questions for his learner’s permit for driving. He paused at a hypothetical question, about a reality he shouldn’t have had to face for decades. Would he be an organ donor?
“You won’t need ‘em where you’re going,” he muttered. He answered “yes.”
His parents recall approving the donation of every organ, one by one. “That is the only good thing that happened that day,” Michael said. “A lot of people’s lives changed for the better.”
His heart beats for all of us
The Van Allens began receiving letters from Adam’s donation recipients a year later.
From the woman with a hole in her kneecap: “Since the tissue transplant, I am able to walk normally again. … Your donation allowed me to return to my third grade teaching position.”
A father of four with cancer wrote, “You’re always in our family prayer.”
Then there was the grandmother of a diabetic man who had to call emergency services whenever his blood sugar levels would plummet. With the donation of a pancreas and kidney, both the grandmother and grandson had their lives back.
Each letter propelled the Van Allens forward. Their son could save over 100 lives.
Scroll through a series of letters written to Susan and Michael Van Allen offering thanks for organ donations received after Adam’s death. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me my life back, for giving me the opportunity to to get a good night’s sleep again,” the family member of a recipient wrote. (Photos courtesy of Susan Van Allen)
Every letter was special. But one in particular stood out to the mother. Perhaps it was because when she hugged Adam’s heart recipient, she felt a familiar beat.
Carrie LeBlanc’s prayers for a heart transplant were answered after just three days on a waiting list, and only hours after the Van Allens’ nightmare began. “I want so much for you to hear his heartbeat – and know that he does live on,” LeBlanc wrote to them.
When the Van Allens first met LeBlanc – with her husband there as well at a restaurant in Gainesville – Michael told her he had heard stories of organ recipients borrowing their donor’s habits and cravings. He was looking for a piece of his son. Did she have any new cravings?
LeBlanc said that after her transplant surgery, she told her husband something he had never heard her say: “I want hot wings.” Susan and Michael locked eyes. Hot wings were one of Adam’s favorite meals, and his mother has a plethora of photos of him grinning behind mountains of sauce-covered chicken to prove it.
LeBlanc texts Susan Van Allen often and knits her gifts. The Van Allens and the gifted ones each celebrate Adam’s birthday every year by enjoying a steak dinner at Longhorn Steakhouse — one of Adam’s birthday traditions — in Keystone Heights and Orlando, respectively.
Sometimes, Van Allen worries her son will be forgotten. But as long as LeBlanc lives, as long as Adam’s heart pumps life through her veins, his parents have something to live for. That outweighs the anger.
Susan Van Allen has forgiven the shooter and isn’t vengeful. She says she “minds her manners and watches her Ps and Qs,” wanting more than anything to see her son again in heaven.
“I’ve got a date with a 15-year-old,” she said.