Foster parents remember drowning victim

19-year-old dies attempting to swim across Black Creek

(Facebook photo/Courtesy of family)

MIDDLEBURG, Fla. – The foster parents of the 19-year-old who drowned Wednesday in Black Creek have shared some insight as to why this might have happened. They're also sharing their memories of him.

Howard Wiley died while swimming with friends off the Main Street Boat Ramp in Middleburg. Thursday night, friends and family gathered for a candlelight vigil to honor him.

Thursday afternoon the area around the boat ramp was unusually quiet for such a hot day, but some locals said it's probably because of what happened there Wednesday.

Wiley's foster parents, Gwen and Kelvin Lewis, are still reeling from the news, but they want people to know he was working hard to improve his life after a very rough start.

"Never a dull moment with Howard. Just a fun-loving kid, you know, once you got to know him," said Gwen Lewis, Wiley's foster mom.

Gwen and Kelvin Lewis were Wiley's foster parents in 2009 when he was 14, but he still called them mom and dad.

Even on a day of mourning, the couple got a chuckle looking at Wiley's Facebook page, remembering the young man who brought them great joy and great challenges.

Of the 15 kids they've fostered, the Lewises said Wiley was one of the toughest to parent.

"I like to say that Howard was a kid that, there were days where he just had no sense of danger," Kelvin Lewis said.

Despite warning signs, Wiley was swimming with friends across Black Creek when they said he desperately started screaming for help, but no one could save him.

His body was recovered several hours later not far from the boat dock.

The Lewises said they weren't surprised that Wiley was out at the boat ramp doing something he shouldn't have. They said, especially when he got depressed, that's the kind of thing he did.

"Danger was almost like a coping skill for him," Kelvin Lewis said.

The Lewises said Wiley loved to fish and he wanted to be a longshoreman or a landscaper, but they never saw him go in the water. They said because he acted invincible at times, it wouldn't surprise them to find Wiley thought he could swim better than he could.

They said Wiley suffered greatly from barely knowing his birth parents and had a very rough start in life but had great hope for his future.

"He said, 'Dad, I'm a grown man now,'" Kelvin Lewis said. "He said, 'And I just think it's time that I do what's right.'"

The Lewises said they know 19 can be a dangerous age for the troubled kids they foster, but they do take some comfort in the last conversation they had with Wiley. Kelvin Lewis recalls every word.

"'I want to apologize for everything that I've put you and mom through. I didn't mean those things, and I hope you forgive me,'" Kelvin Lewis said. "And I said to him, 'Howard, you know, you did the best you could.'"

The Lewises attended a candlelight vigil Thursday night in Wiley's memory at Tanglewood Park in Orange Park -- about 15 minutes from the boat ramp.

As the sun went down, they lit candles, bowed their heads and prayed, and shared their favorite memories of Wiley.

"He really wanted peace in his life," Gwen Lewis said. "He really wanted meaning in his life, even if he didn't know how to produce that. He really wanted it."

Attendees at the vigil asked reporters to keep their distance.

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