Family members and friends of the four men who drowned at the American Falls Reservoir last year are one step closer to completing their memorial project thanks to the efforts of a Grace Lutheran School student in Pocatello.

    Eighth-grader Karis DeWalt donated 15 life jackets to the Hale family this weekend for the life jacket loaner station and memorial they are planning to build at the reservoir.

    “I’m glad I can help them get some closure and help with this project,” she said Monday.

    DeWalt used the life jackets — paid for with a $160 grant from the Pocatello Kiwanis Club — to teach students about life-jacket safety as part of a school project earlier this year. She felt the donation was the perfect ending to the project, which she organized after hearing about the deaths of Jared and Aaron Hale, Darrel Shappart Jr. and Steve Verbeck. All of the men drowned while trying to save one another, after one of the men fell into the water and they all rushed to help. None of them were wearing life jackets at the time of the accident.

    DeWalt organized her project to educate kids about life-jacket safety and help prevent future deaths — a mission also undertaken by the Hale family as they’ve tried to deal with their grief.

    The Hales are building a life-jacket loaner station at the reservoir to memorialize their loved ones and remind others about the importance of life jackets. JoAnne Duke, the sister of Jared and Aaron Hale and niece of Darrel Shappart Jr., said the station will provide free life jacket rentals for families recreating in the area and will hopefully encourage everyone to put the jackets on before they go into the water.

    Duke said she appreciates DeWalt’s efforts to not only assist her family, but increase life jacket safety awareness in general.

    “Her genuine commitment to life jacket safety and education is inspiring to our family. We are confident that she has made a difference in the lives of the children she has taught and expect she will continue to inspire people her entire life,” Duke said Monday.

    The family is hoping to open the life-jacket loaner station by Memorial Day weekend, and Duke said DeWalt’s donation of child- and adult-sized life jackets brings them closer to achieving that goal.

    “As one might expect, her service project has a very special place in our family’s heart,” Duke said.

    Although the Hales are getting closer to completing their memorial project, there are still opportunities for people to help. Big John’s Mini Storage in Pocatello is accepting life jacket donations, and Wells Fargo Bank is accepting financial donations under the account of Hale Family Life Jacket Foundation.

    Duke said the donations will be used to supply the life jacket loaner station, build additional stations and continue community education on water safety.