My life changed forever one day before Valentine’s Day, four days before a trip to my future sister-in-law’s bridal shower, 11 days before a second trip to Las Vegas with my husband, and two months before my brother-in-law’s wedding.
On the afternoon of February 13, 2011, a drunk driver ran a stop sign, crashing broadside into my car, resulting in non-displaced fractures. I spent a little more than eight weeks in a neck brace 24/7. I was both angry and terrified, yet, I also felt fortunate. I survived. I “walked” away from injuries that should have killed or paralyzed me. I still suffer from changed sleep patterns and anxiety, and there are some activities I can no longer participate in.
But I survived.
The offender received a sentence of 30 days in jail, 45 days mandatory in-patient rehab and 10 years’ probation. The sentence brought me peace. At the hearing, I told him what he had done – what he’d ripped away from me. I began the healing process.
I have since come to understand that victims of violent crimes can remain stuck in that moment of confrontation. It becomes too easy to allow that moment to consume you and define you. But that’s just another victory for the drunk.
I realized, if I didn't want that moment to so completely define my life, I must move forward. That meant letting go of whatever negative emotions I held in. With the support of my victim advocate, Suzette, and by attending support groups, I’ve been able to let go and move forward. I hope that by sharing my story with others, they can do the same.
Learning to live again is killing me ~ Garth Brooks
Bright lights, tall trees, family, and laughter -- Such words are often associated with celebrating the holidays. As a child, I could only dream of the next time I would see a Christmas tree or gather with loved ones to open presents, bake treats, and stay up all night.
When I was six years old, the motorcycle my brother was riding on was hit by a drunk driver. He left home on a cool November night, and never returned. Instead, 5 days later, on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1982, our parents made the decision to take Hector off life support. The Holidays would never be the same again, and Thanksgiving became just another day. Our mother could not handle setting a table with an empty chair, or breaking down every time we began to talk about what we were thankful for. Year after year, we also stopped celebrating Christmas. Our traditions were lost. I remember thinking, but too afraid to say the words out loud, what about the rest of your children?
When I went away to college, 12 years later, I looked forward to coming home and baking pecan pies with my parents for Thanksgiving. Yet the memory of gathering around the dinner table, remembering my brother, is still distant. In fact, it was a topic we continued to avoid.
Thirty three years ago, our family lost its joy at the hands of a drunk driver. We did not know how to live while a piece of our heart was missing. Three decades later, we still haven’t learned to celebrate his short life. But we have chosen to honor our son, father, brother, uncle, and friend by living and by doing things that seem normal to everyone else that we couldn’t do before.
Writing about my brother Hector is my therapy and doing so helps me on my continued journey of healing and adjusting to my new normal of him not being here. It is just another way of keeping his memory alive by sharing his story that I hope helps others.
-Olga M. Hickman, Ph.D
For most of us, the holidays are a time of happiness. It’s a time to gather with family and friends we haven’t seen in a while and to enjoy the time spent together. This is what most of us look forward to when the holidays draw nearer. For victims and survivors of substance impaired driving crashes, and for those who have lost a loved one due to impaired driving, the holidays may be a time of sadness. Many instead find ways to honor their loved ones, or themselves, during the holidays, to not let memories be lost in the hustle and bustle of the season. There are many ways victims and survivors are honored by their loved ones, not just during the holiday season but year round.
For Juan De La Garza, he has found many ways to honor his sister, Alejandra Vega De la Garza, who was killed while riding in a vehicle with her husband who had been drinking on January 12, 2014. This is the family’s second Christmas without Alejandra and they now have new traditions around the holidays to honor her. They put up a memory tree and decorate it with ornaments that remind them of Alejandra. They share memories of Alejandra and also release balloons in her honor. They share her story at the local Christmas parade and enter a float in her honor. Juan has been able to turn this tragedy into something good by using Alejandra’s story to motivate and educate others about the dangers of drinking and driving. Juan shared that being to tell Alejandra’s story to others is the best way he can continue to honor Alejandra, not just during the holidays, but year round.
Janakae Toinette Sargent was 20 years old when she was hit by a drunk driver while she herself was serving as the designated driver for some college friends on November 12, 2006. She later died and her mother, Kandi, buried her daughter the day before Thanksgiving. Kandi said it was the first of many family traditions that would be forever changed. Kandi shared that finding ways to cope with daily life has been hard but coping through the holidays is challenging at best. At the beginning to honor Janakae, Kandi would put up a Christmas tree each year at Janakae’s gravesite and ask family and friends to place ornaments throughout the holiday season. This continued for five years; they now honor Janakae with a balloon release that is held every year on Janakae’s “angelversary” and another one on her birthday, January 22nd.
Cathy DeWitt’s son, Cody DeWitt, was killed December 24, 2011 while riding with an impaired driver. The car Cody was riding in struck a tree and he and another passenger were killed. Cathy honors her son in many ways, year round. She admits that sometimes she tries to block out Christmas. She has found peace in visiting some of Cody’s favorite places such as a nearby creek, dam where he enjoyed fishing as well as his grandparent’s home where he spent a majority of his time. Cathy shared that leaving a sunflower at his favorite places brings her peace and is part of her healing. She also honors Cody by lighting a candle at the crash site each year while leaving a sunflower and also placing one at the cemetery. Cody was born November 10th at 5:04 a.m. Cathy celebrates Cody’s birthday by making a brownie, lighting a candle and at exactly 5:04 a.m., wishes her son a Happy Birthday.
Silina Kelshaw, 17, was killed in June 2002 when the van she was riding in with her family was hit by an impaired driver who ran a stop sign. Silina was just a few weeks from graduating. Pam, Silina’s mother, shared that the holidays, birthdays, crash dates, are all difficult for her, her husband Chris, and Silina’s brother, Avery. They each honor Silina in a different way. Pam shares Silina’s story every chance she gets by speaking at Victim Impact Panels for MADD. This is her biggest honor. Mother’s Day is also a special time for Pam. She spends part of the day visiting Silina’s gravesite and talking with her. Chris, Silina’s father, visits her gravesite each Father’s Day and shares this special time with his daughter as well. Their son Avery visits his sister’s gravesite on his own as often as time allows. On Silina’s birthday, April 13th, the family gathers together at her gravesite to celebrate her day. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is a place set for Silina at the table. For Avery too, if he is not able to make it home for the holidays. Silina’s favorite color was blue. Avery purchased an ornament of an angel wearing a light blue dress the family hangs on the Christmas tree together every year. Pam shared they will always be a family of four and each special occasion, holiday or anniversary, there is a place set at the table for everyone.
While the holiday season can be a difficult time for victims and survivors of substance impaired driving crashes, it is our hope that they can also be a time to honor loved ones taken away from us too soon as well as honored, as these families have shared.
This is a short story about the life and untimely death of a son and a sailor named Paul Anthony Brittingham …
Paul was born on July 30th 1987. He was our first born son. Paul grew up in a very loving Christian home with a younger brother named Heath. He was a very outgoing and loving child that made friends very easily. That loving child grew into a man in what seemed to be an instant--to know him was to love him.
He joined the Navy in January 2008 and graduated boot camp in March. After graduation he was stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Pensacola Florida. He was studying to be an Air Frame Mechanic. We were overjoyed with his career decision and that he was so close to home. He became his class leader and was a very proud Navy Man! He exuded pride and confidence. But that was to be short lived.
On Friday September 19, 2008, the Sailors were given liberty, and Paul’s fiancé went to the base to pick him up for a weekend with her and our family. They made a stop at Wal-Mart and bought a movie and were headed to the beach that night. They were 1.5 miles from Wal-Mart when they were struck by a drunk driver. Paul was killed instantly, and his fiancé sustained several injuries. The driver of the other vehicle died on the way to the hospital. He was found to be 3.5 times the legal limit.
That day many lives were forever changed. We lost a son, and though his fiancé has recovered from the physical wounds, she still struggles with the emotional trauma. That day we all had to begin a new journey, a journey without Paul. His hugs, his infectious smile and his presence were ripped from our world.
The journey we are on now includes sharing Paul’s story as often as we can with others. We speak for schools, law enforcement, company safety meetings, military stand downs and at churches. We speak anywhere we can to bring awareness to all that the decision to drink and drive has real consequences, life changing consequences. And we speak to tell them that this is preventable!
Paul received full Military Honors and was revered by several of his shipmates and instructors. Paul’s memory will forever be with us …until the day that we join him in heaven.
Terry and Alisa Brittingham
By Kelli Donlen
Three days after turning 15, Zachary Gonzalez was killed by a drugged driver while riding his bike with friends. The driver was found to have valium and cocaine in his system and had five cocaine pipes in his vehicle that all tested positive. His only concern following the crash was getting his “oxys” (OxyContin) out of his car.
Kelli Donlen, Zachary’s aunt and legal guardian, was notified of the crash by the police and told Zachary was killed on scene. They were not allowed to go to the site of the crash and struggled because they were never able to confirm for themselves that it was indeed Zachary. Kelli said she wanted to believe it was a mistake if she didn’t see her nephew for herself. It was Zachary’s friend who confirmed for her that it was indeed Zachary.
Shortly after, Kelli learned that the cause of the crash was placed on Zachary because he and his friends were riding their bikes on a non-pedestrian road. The impaired driver was charged with a DUI and possession of drug paraphernalia. He was sentenced from one to six months in jail and was released on probation after only serving one month. Since his release, he has since been arrested for being drunk in someone else’s car and plead to Disorderly Practice; however, it was not a violation of his parole.
Kelli and her husband, who is the brother to Zachary’s mother, obtained custody of him at the age of 9. Kelli shared Zachary’s father was killed by a substance impaired driver when Zachary was three years old. When Zachary was 9 years old, his mother passed away from leukemia and since that time, Kelli described Zachary as quiet and keeping to himself, trying to make sense of all his losses. Shortly before turning 15, he was beginning to come out of his shell and enjoying life again. For his 15th birthday the family took a trip to Disney World and Kelli said they had a wonderful time. They returned home on Saturday evening and it was the next day, Sunday, January 19, 2014 that Zachary was killed.
The tears and heartache still have not gone away for Kelli, they never will. She struggles with the fact that the man who killed Zachary never should have been driving. She struggles with never having the chance to say goodbye. She does her best to remember all the good times with Zachary but finds herself always thinking of the “firsts” that Zachary will never experience such as prom, graduation, college, driving, marriage and having children. She tries to stay busy and loves talking about Zachary with others. Zachary was active on the wrestling team at his school and the family founded The Zachary Gonzalez Scholarship Program in his honor. Every year they will give out two, $1000 scholarships to students on the wrestling team. They gave out their first two scholarships this past April and plan to do so for as long as they can. The family also participated in their first WALK Like MADD event on September 19th in Philadelphia. Their team, Team Zach, had over 30 members and raised over $1000. Kelli is also working with Representative John Galloway on House Bill #1076 in Zach’s honor that asks for heavier charges in substance impaired crashes when a death of injury occurs. Kelli said she will never stop advocating for stiffer laws and honoring Zachary’s life by telling others about him.