Although it was the holiday season, the Winter family was doing what no family should have to do during what is normally thought of a festive time - grieving for a loved one.
Friends and family of 18-year-old Chad Winter were in shock after what was suppose to have been a fun-filled week on Sanibel Island, turned into tragedy, when the Woodstock, Ill., native drowned off of Gulfside Beach Monday, Dec. 15.
Winter and his girlfriend, Lauren Akers, were paddle boarding during a nice and sunny morning, when both were tossed off the board and into the water. Akers was able to swim back to shore, but Winter wasn't able to make it back.
The Sanibel Fire Department was called and a frantic search was conducted to find Winter, but it was to no avail. The next day, Tuesday, Dec. 16, Winter's body was found approximately 300 yards offshore in about 10 feet of water.
"Chad was so excited to go down to Sanibel with Lauren and her parents, he just loved her," said Chad's father, Kevin Winter, who lives in Minot, N.D. "It was a nice little trip. He wasn't a big fan of cold weather and I could have seen him move down towards Florida someday."
When Kevin Winter, along with his wife Jolene, received the call, they were numb. The couple, along with Chad's mother Kerry Warren and her husband Scott, who live in Woodstock, immediately flew down to Fort Myers to join the search.
An hour after they landed, authorities made the discovery of Chad's body.
"It's been really hard, we are all still in shock over it," Kevin Winter said. "My birthday is tomorrow (Jan. 9) and Chad's is in three weeks. This will be the first time he won't be there to say 'I love you Dad.'"
Chad's biggest interest was in auto mechanics, in which he was just starting classes at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Ill. His love of autos was present with another love of his - a Mitsubishi Lancer he owned.
He also was an avid sports fan of the Chicago White Sox and Oklahoma City Thunder, but played baseball and basketball more than he watched it.
After Chad's death, friends and family signed the Lancer's hood, along with messages of missing and loving him. The hood was clear-coated to preserve the signatures forever for the family.
"It was just remarkable!" Kevin said of the gesture. "The kids just loved him, it was amazing what they did. Chad was just a goofy, fun-loving kid. Everyone who met him, loved him. He was loved by many, many people. He had a smile which could light up any room. "
Chad had a large family, including four sisters who loved him dearly. They included Ashlee Lorenzo (25 years old), Melanie Winter (21), Karlee Winter (19) and Kylee Winter (13). He also had step brothers and a sister, along with many friends from the Woodstock area.
Even though the family was in shock and grief during their time on Sanibel Island, Kevin said the touching sentiments and outpouring of help from the island's people and authorities, was unbelievable.
"I can't say enough good things about the people on Sanibel Island. We didn't know what to expect getting off the plane, but the moment we got there, the Lee County Visitors Bureau was there to help us," Kevin said. "The news media was also considerate and everyone from the policemen, who guided wherever we went, to the resort which let us stay, was amazing.
"Even on the flight back home from Fort Myers, a lady who has a house on Sanibel and who was sitting in front of us, was talking about the paddle boarder and kayaker (32-year-old Andrew Barber also tragically drowned the Friday prior to Chad Winter) to someone next to her. She said everyone was praying for them.
"I introduced myself as Chad's father and told her thank you. She said the entire island was sad and praying for us. It was really sweet."
Kevin and Jolene Winter are planning on making a trip to Sanibel in the future and visit Gulfside Beach. No doubt, it will be a highly emotional visit for the Winter family, but one they are looking forward to.
"It's been really, really rough," Kevin added. "We will miss Chad and we love him."
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