Family’s promise to woman who died saving her son
"Don't let go of me."
They are the last words of a mother desperately trying to save her child.
The last words of a trailblazing advocate for inclusion.
The last words of a teacher always inspiring her community.
Leonie Jackson, former CEO of the Deaf Society and born profoundly deaf, died just as she lived - bravely, heroically and selflessly.
Leonie spent her final hours surrounded by loved ones as she celebrated her 50th birthday, before she tragically drowned off Congo Beach on the NSW south coast two weeks ago while trying to save her child from a deadly rip.
Now, her family here on the Gold Coast are determined to live out her last words … to never let go of Leonie's memory.
Her younger sister Claire Gibbs says Leonie's legacy was profound, from her 18 years teaching at the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, her service as assistant principal of the Thomas Pattison School - a bilingual K - 10 school, her role as general manager of education and quality at real-time captioning social enterprise Ai-Media and her role as CEO of the Deaf Society.
But as well as her national and International accomplishments, Leonie sought to serve students in the heart of the Gold Coast.
Partnering with Miami High School, Leonie worked with principal Sue Dalton to create a world-leading level of inclusion for students with disabilities.
"I hit the jackpot with Leonie as she was one of the few educators in the country that truly understood what inclusion was. To both of us it was a mission to educate and influence that inclusion is more than placing different children in the one room - it's about giving each of those children equal access to the teaching and learning that occurs in that room," says Sue.
"From being our first ever keynote for a global event that inspired our entire community and many others around the world, to sitting quietly next to our deaf children in a classroom signing in Auslan about how they too could be successful like her, Leonie gave our deaf students and their families hope.
"She genuinely instilled belief in these children that they too could break down barriers and believe that anything was possible if you work hard for it and get back up every time you get knocked down."
And now, in just one week, the school will be the venue for a memorial organised by the Jackson family for Leonie's family, friends and beloved deaf community.
Leonie's life and death are a reminder of how little labels truly mean and yet how great the influence of just one person can be.
Her sister Claire, a lawyer for Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in Southport who last year won a landmark High Court case for indigenous rights, says her own career was inspired by watching Leonie smash through the barriers of prejudice and discrimination.
"I am so fortunate that my hero was also my big sister and one of the best human beings I've had the privilege to know and to love. To say I'm proud of Leonie is the biggest uderstatement I could ever make," says Claire.
"Leonie would always keep a promise and the last words she spoke were 'don't let go of me'.
"Leonie, I promise you we won't.
"We won't let go of your beautiful boys and your village will surround them with love and ensure they grow into the men you wanted them to be.
"We won't let go of all you wanted us to be and will make the most of life and the opportunities that come our way just as you encouraged us all to do, literally and by your example.
"We won't let go of continuing your mission in life and fighting to break down barriers and for access and inclusion for all. You've left the richest legacy in your wonderful friends, colleagues and family and you have planted many seeds that will flourish in many ways for many generations to come.
"Some heroes wear capes, mine had curly hair and was courageous, creative, fun, forward-thinking, kind, devilishly cheeky and selfless to the very end."
While Leonie's family, friends and the deaf community grieve their loss, they can take comfort in the ray of hope shining from Miami High's Great Hall next Saturday.
Because Leonie's memorial will be a celebration of not just her life, but of all the lives she inspired - and her influence will live on. Not just within the deaf students that she inspired, but within every student she helped teach to be truly inclusive.
Rest assured, Leonie, they won't let go.
Originally published as Family's promise to woman who died saving her son