via/Southampton Press by Michelle Trauring
The call started as one that no parent wants to hear.
“There was an incident on the playground,” it began, relayed to Germain Smith, the father of two children in the Tuckahoe School District, from School Superintendent Len Skuggevik.
The administrator paused — and the silence felt like an eternity, said Smith, who is also the secretary of the Shinnecock Council of Trustees and a Southampton School District Board of Education member.
“Naturally, my heart was in my throat,” he recalled. “And then he said, ‘And your daughter’s a hero.’”
Last month, 11-year-old Delaney Smith — a longtime student at Epic Martial Arts in Sag Harbor — saved her classmate from choking by performing the Heimlich maneuver.
On Friday, December 1, Skuggevik presented Delaney and her friend Rosemary Juarez Rojas, who also assisted, with Real Life Hero Awards at the Tuckahoe School.
“It was scary, but I’m proud of myself,” Delaney said.
The sixth-grader started practicing martial arts at age 4, she said, and she recently earned her orange belt. It has not only taught her self-defense skills, she said, but also discipline and to treat others with kindness.
“It felt great, because I’ve been waiting a little bit,” she said of her recent achievement.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenging time for some of Sensei Michelle Del Giorno’s students, the instructor recalled. Once the dojo reopened with a limited schedule, she kept them separated, 6 feet apart, and also hosted an “outdoor dojo” from her home in Sagaponack, as well as classes on Zoom. Delaney attended both, she said, and is proud of her efforts.
“Delaney is a very focused young girl,” she said. “She pays attention to all people, places and things. This is what I teach my young students — that it is important to always be aware of your surroundings and to be an ‘upstander,’ not a bystander.”
Choking is one of the leading causes of accidental deaths in children, explained Del Giorno. According to the New York State Department of Health, at least one child dies from choking on food every five days in the United States.
If it weren’t for Delaney and Rosemary, the fate of their friend could have been much different.
During recess on November 9, Delaney said she was talking to Rosemary when their close friend approached them, on his knees, with his hands holding his throat. His eyes were red and teary, she said.
“We didn’t know what was happening at first,” she said. “But then my friend said, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s choking!’”
Delaney asked him to stand up, but he couldn’t, so she picked him up and grabbed him from behind, quickly thrusting to dislodge the chip he was choking on — a movement she had remembered from a poster hanging in her first grade classroom, which she said she read every day.
From start to finish, the incident was over in 20 seconds, Delaney estimated.
“It was shocking, because I didn’t, like … I never experienced anything like that before,” she said. “And then a few hours later, it finally hit me, and I started crying.”
In the following weeks, Delaney’s heroism continues to impress her family, including her 7-year-old sister, Addison, who also practices martial arts.
“I was really proud of her, but I got a little jealous,” she said, eliciting a big laugh from her father.
She added, “Because I never did anything like that, and I want to be like my sister someday.”