MANATEE -- At 12:21 p.m. on Oct. 27, a bright and cloudless day, Carren Elizabeth Brantley Burnell of Bradenton, who had built a reputation in Manatee County as a tireless advocate for the safety of children, died at Tidewell Hospice House in Sarasota.
Mrs. Burnell's family described the 44-year-old's soul as soaring, having just left a totally spent body that had battled metastatic breast cancer for 17 years.
"Carren was a spiritual person," Jay Burnell, Mrs. Burnell's husband, said Friday. "Carren had seen my father cross over, which was an amazing experience for all of us. Carren was heavily medicated at the time of her death because of her symptoms, so she could not verbalize what she was experiencing. But, later, we saw two eagles, one bald eagle and one golden eagle, soaring side by side over Griffith-Cline Funeral Home, where she was brought. I had never seen eagles in downtown Bradenton, I think it was a gift from God reassuring us that she was happy and she was happy with the plans we were making for her."
Although Jay Burnell and Mrs. Burnell's daughter, Rachel, 20, feel it's important to share their intense belief that Mrs. Burnell is in a better place, they said her legacy on earth is the work she did to protect children as the president and founder of the Child Abuse Prevention Coalition and her employment as a program coordinator with Manatee Children's Services.
Mrs. Burnell customized programs for each grade level to make sure children understood the message of child safety, her husband said.
"Carren went into every elementary classroom in Manatee County and reached out to the children with her message that they are the boss of their bodies," Burnell said. "I worked with her sometimes. She demanded the perfect delivery of the message. She was a perfectionist about that. She had a way of relating to children so they trusted her."
Still, some of those children needed to see her every year to feel comfortable enough to share the abuse they had experienced.
"In some ways, her passing is a huge loss and her consistency can't be duplicated, but in other ways she has created a model that others will follow to get kids to feel comfortable talking about abuse and safety," Burnell said.
Mrs. Burnell, who told her family she wished to be cremated after her passing, battled seven recurrences of her breast cancer before the disease took her, Burnell said.
Rachel Burnell, who is now in school for cosmetology to be a hair dresser, was 2-year-old when her mother was first diagnosed with cancer, at age 27.
"My mother was strong, free-spirited and one of the most caring people I know," Rachel said Friday. "One of the biggest things she taught me is to not dwell on the negative. Even though she had cancer she made sure everything she did was special and important. I remember every one of my birthdays was made into an incredibly special celebration."
During one of their last conversations, Mrs. Burnell told her daughter, "I am very proud of you and I want you to know I will be OK."
"I answered, 'I'll be OK and dad will be OK and we will make sure your legacy lives on,'" Rachel Burnell said she told her mother. "We want people to know how amazing my mom was and that her light continues to shine on the community. We want to somehow continue to spread the love she had for people, especially children."
Mrs. Burnell born on Independence Day
Mrs. Burnell was born on July 4, 1970, in Macon, Ga. Perhaps because of her July 4 birth, she told her husband that she would love it if fireworks could be set off at her upcoming public memorial service, which is at 7 p.m. Nov. 10 at Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton.
Mrs. Burnell met her husband while they were in the Kiltie Marching Band at Riverview High School in Sarasota. Mrs. Burnell graduated from Riverview High in 1988.
In 2009, she completed a bachelor's degree in social work from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, where she was recognized for, "Outstanding Research In The School of Social Work," her family said.
Mrs. Burnell was known in Manatee County schools as "The Safety Lady," her husband said.
"When she started going into classrooms, Carren empowered children to recognize, resist and report abuse and scream the 'NO! STOP! LEAVE ME ALONE!' alert while learning to be the boss of their body," Jay Burnell said. "More than 5,000 children requested immediate help, leading to more than 500 cases of suspected child abuse being reported."
Those who would like to help the family with the cost of the memorial service and for future plans for, possibly, a once-a-year scholarship or a foundation, can go to youcaring.com/memorial-fundraiser/carren-s-light-legacy/256286.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.