Dale Galloway and his family know what tragedy looks like. In 2006, the Galloways moved their two bright, young sons Connor, 12, and Aidan, 10, to Jackson County where Dale was offered a job as Smoky Mountain High School's head football coach. The family had moved often as a result of Dale's career, but this time, he and his wife, Michele, felt like maybe it would be the last time and that their boys would finish high school in the small town. Their oldest son, Connor, was an intelligent child who loved history —decorating his bedroom with with statues of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln —and football, just like his dad, and taking care of his little brother. In August 2007, with construction on their new home complete, the family moved in, anticipating a new life with new jobs and new schools, never imagining the nightmare that would occur only months later.
In October 2007, they found their 12- year- old son lifeless in his room. The apparent cause of death was accidental strangulation from a game referred to as the “choking game.” The police officer who investigated their child's death explained to the couple that after interviewing students at Connor's school, he had learned that students had been choking themselves in order to feel “high.”
“Our beautiful, bright, and happy child was dead at 12 years of age because he wanted to see what it felt like to be high,” said Galloway in a contribution to the North Carolina Medical Journal he penned in 2010.
Through the pain and loss, the Galloway family decided that though they couldn't change the past, they could at least try to change the future for unsuspecting families that could perhaps be impacted by this dangerous activity.
“Like many parents who have lost children, there came a point very early on when the realization that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to bring our child back became almost unbearable,” said Dale. “We realized that the only real option we had was to attempt to help other families by raising awareness about what happened with Connor.”
Dale and his wife decided to create the foundation Connor's HEART (Helping Eliminate Adolescent Risk Taking) in an attempt to spread awareness throughout the region and beyond. They decided that focusing on only the “choking game” was not enough and instead focused on reducing the rising incidence of death and disability from various high-risk behaviors like prescription drug abuse, high-risk social activities, and other kinds of behaviors that adolescents pursue in search of a thrill. Their goal is to improve access to information regarding these behaviors for parents, improve schoolbased education programs, and to foster policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels in hopes of providing competent, comprehensive, and consistent programs to school, parents, and children directly.
In a grass-roots effort, Connor's HEART presentations have been conducted by the family and Connor's Coaches, college aged students who have been trained to assist with the presentations, at many community organizations and schools throughout North Carolina and as far away as Bethesda, Md. The Galloways have also given many interviews to different media outlets hoping to reach as far as possible with their message. The largest audience that has heard their story was reached when they were interviewed on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) radio about their loss and the goals of their organization.
Dale has also taken the foundation's message to the state level by pursuing opportunities to present about the dangerous activities children are participating in to the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force at the N.C. General Assembly, with the objective that if the foundation can address the quantity of health education that is required from the state level, then local schools can focus on the quality of the health education.
“We feel that we have an important message but many school systems find it difficult to do health education well for whatever reason,” said Dale. “Some systems struggle to find enough qualified health educators while other systems do not place high value on health educations because it competes with subject areas that are frequently tested.”
Last June, the Galloways organized and participated in the first national conference addressing the choking game. The June conference attracted parents representing 17 states and country's like Canada, France, Switzerland, and South Africa. The hope for conferences such as these is that health education will be a higher priority in the goals of the U.S. Department of Education.
As for the future of Connor's HEART, the Galloways feel that it is only natural for the foundation to continue to make contributions regarding adolescent health.
“We feel that we will always speak out about our son. He is still part of our family and a part of our lives. We feel that we owe it to his memory and to fellow parents to continue our efforts.” said Dale. “In the future, we hope to multiply our efforts by having college age students be the ones to deliver our message to middle school students. Our focus is to educate young people and we feel that the best conduit for that message will be college age adults. It will also allow middle school students to see college age adults in a positive light.”