SOUTH BEND - Jennifer Eaton didn't set out to be a hero. Time and circumstance, however, intervened and her destiny was sealed.
It was late afternoon, June 11, a Tuesday. Eaton, of Granger, was sitting in her sport utility vehicle along Riverside Drive, chatting on her cell phone.
As she chatted, she kept a watchful eye as two of her children -- Leah, 10, and Hailee, 9 -- played in nearby Leeper Park.
"I was just getting ready to hang up and a little girl came running across, 'Help me! Help me,' " Eaton recalled. "I said, 'What's wrong?' She said, 'My cousin fell in the water. She's drowning!' "
Without hesitation, Eaton, a widowed mother of four, sprang into action. After sprinting across Riverside Drive to the south bank of the St. Joseph River, she spotted 10-year-old Leronda Cleveland more than 15 feet out from the shore. She dove in.
The little girl's head bobbed in and out of the water nearly a half-dozen times before she could reach her, Eaton said.
"She kept going under and it was, 'Oh my God, I have to get to her.' That was my biggest concern," Eaton said. "I got halfway there and I thought, 'What am I doing?' At that point, there was no turning back. She kept going under so I knew I had to get to her."
Eaton got to Cleveland and pulled her to shore. Exhausted, she held onto the girl until water rescue crews from the South Bend Fire Department, who had been just up the river conducting training, arrived and pulled both out of the water.
That day along the banks of the swiftly flowing river, South Bend police Sgt. Ann Schellinger said Eaton's actions "without a doubt" saved the girl's life.
"She saved her life, no question about it," Schellinger said at the time. "She's definitely a hero in my book."
Local business leaders who oversee the George A. Cooper Foundation agreed.
On Friday along the banks of the river, not far from where Eaton pulled Cleveland to safety, representatives from the foundation presented Eaton with the George A. Cooper Heroism Award.
"We just felt that it was something that was necessary," Edward Levy, president of Freeman-Spicer Financial Services and a member of the foundation board, said. "A lot of people walk by and don't want to get involved."
The award's namesake, George A. Cooper, was the physical director of the YMCA, who in April 1921 on Indian Lake near Dowagiac saved the lives of three men who were drowning in the lake.
The foundation began later that year with Notre Dame football legend Knute Rockne among the original trustees.
Levy said there were 30 or so awards presented through the first 40 years. Following a hiatus, another couple dozen were presented in the late 1990s through the early 2000s. No awards have been given in more than a decade, he said.
"This is the first time in a long time that we felt was really, really deserving," Levy said.
Eaton was not expecting the recognition for her efforts.
"It means a lot that it was recognized the way that it was," she said. "I did not expect this at all. It was definitely a surprise."
It has been nearly a month since Eaton's act of bravery. Even with the passage of time, the full scope of what she did is hard to comprehend, she said.