By: Kreceda W. Tyler
Summer time family vacations usually bring wonderful lasting memories.
But for our family the memories of summer vacation and the Fourth of July holiday will never be the same. My family’s trip to Disney World on July 4, 2004 will forever resonate in our hearts and minds crippled by the sadness of losing our loved ones: my mother, Mary S. Whitfield, my daughter, Da’Ja Christophe and my cousin, Christina Cantrell.
My mother and her sister were extremely close and they decided that it would be a good idea to combine a “sisters vacation” with a trip to Disney World as a gift to the children, which included my aunt’s two children and my daughter, Da’Ja. This trip became especially important because my mother’s health had begun to fail and her prognosis was grim. In fact, the day of the trip, she confided to us, her children and her sister, that she’d only been given two years of life expectancy from her illness. Therefore, the trip to Disney World became much more meaningful to her and to all of us.
The July 4th weekend was family and fun-filled for everyone. We spent the weekend in Jacksonville, Florida for a small family reunion. From the family reunion, my mother, daughter, aunt and cousins were set to depart on their week-long trip to Orlando. Reflecting back on the moment, I can say that it was a blessing that our family was able to see and bond with each other, unknowingly sharing our last Earthly goodbye.
On July 4, 2004, my mother, daughter and cousin) travelled together from Jacksonville, Florida to their vacation destination-My Aunt Irene and her son trailed behind them in a separate vehicle. In Orlando, my mother missed the exit en route to the hotel so she merged over to the left to make a turnaround. My aunt who was attempting to merge over behind her could not because an SUV was traveling too close at a high rate of speed behind my mother’s vehicle. In an attempt to pass her on the highway, the driver instead crashed into the back of her car as my aunt and cousin watched in horror.
The impact of the collision caused my mother’s car to skid across the median into oncoming traffic where the passenger side of my mother’s car was again struck by another oncoming truck. My mother, Mary, and my daughter, Da’Ja, died instantly at the scene of the crash. My cousin, r, Christina,was taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center where she died two hours later. The driver admitted that he had been drinking and was tested for driving while under the influence, for which he tested positive with a Blood Alcohol Concentration above the legal limit. He and his wife were uninjured and his wife had not been drinking at all.
Due to improper sealing of his bloodwork confirming his BAC over the limit, he was only convicted of a DWI misdemeanor and sentenced to probation.
My daughter Da’Ja was a seven-year-old, rising 2nd grade honor student who loved Mickey Mouse and singing. My cousin Christina was a 12-year-old rising 7th grade honor student, who was very artistic and also loved to sing. My mother, Mar,y was 56 years old and a loving mother, grandmother, a favorite aunt to almost all of her nieces and nephews, a dynamic nurse and a devoted woman of God.
What I remember most the night of the crash was being devastated from the news that my mother was given a prognosis of two years to live and those years were taken away. I have never known a greater pain than losing a parent and a child at the same time during a time that was meant for family and celebration.
Thirteen years later, we are in a constant state of healing. Every time a family reunion occurs or the Fourth of July comes around, we are reminded of the tragedy we endured. My family and I have a strong faith in God and personally, I have come to accept what has happened and even forgiven the driver, but that does not negate the fact that the crash was senseless. The actions of the driver were senseless and thoughtless. His heartlessness to accept due punishment because of his actions and failure to apologize to our families was senseless and thoughtless.
We continue to celebrate our family members. Their strength and love shines through all of us. They touched all the lives they encountered in a positive way. It is their exemplary lives that gives us the strength and courage to forgive and live life to the fullest. I am committed to continuing their legacy and help bring awareness and prevention to drunk driving.
Since the crash, I’ve written a poem every year for my daughter’s birthday. In February 2015, Da’Ja would have been 18 years old. As a dedication to their memory, Da’Ja’s 18th birthday and high school graduation year, I released a book of poetry entitled, “This Side of Heaven: A Poetic Journey of Strength and Survival” which is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All proceeds for this poetry book are donated to MADD as a way of giving back to ensure that we continue to prevent drunk driving crashes and support the victims of this senseless crime.
The Fourth of July and family vacations will never be the same for us, but while we’re on this side of Heaven, we choose to remember the lives they led instead of the lives we lost.
This is the third in a three-part series by drunk driving victim Erin Rollins:
I looked the defendant dead in the eyes and read the closing portion of my victim impact statement. "Your behavior and seeming lack of remorse has been the hardest for me to work through. But I want you to know that I forgive you even though I don't think you deserve it. Because, then again, Jesus forgave me and I didn't deserve it."
I stepped off of the stand feeling empowered, yet emotionally exhausted at the same time. I slowly made my way back to my seat.
I braced for the defendant to decline to say anything. Weeks leading up to the final court date, I had prepared myself that even if she didn't acknowledge what she had done, my pain remained valid.
I knew I needed to forgive completely regardless of the outcome. Through my healing journey, I had believed a lie that told me that I needed her to feel remorse to validate my experience. And believing this challenged my ability to move forward.
Holding onto resentful feelings over the offender’s lack of remorse threatened the joy I had in God’s answer to my specific prayers, and the hope I had in Him to use something terrible for good. Focusing on what the offender wasn’t doing distracted me from being at peace with God and myself, and trusting that my pain had a very important purpose.
Coincidently only a week prior, the minister of my church gave a sermon on forgiveness. I learned that wholehearted forgiveness means letting go of resentful feelings towards someone, whether they deserve it or not. It does not mean forgetting what happened, or excusing the defendant’s actions. It meant freeing myself from the bitterness that tried to assimilate control over the defendant, her choices and the situation. It also meant giving myself permission to move on with life, to fully love my husband-to-be, and to extend myself the grace to accept the newfound changes to my body. By forgiving the offender completely, I also gave myself room to mourn my losses, but not stay there.
I was finally able to let go of the last piece that I had been holding onto for those years. Even if she didn't apologize, I had released her, and myself, from feelings of resentment for her lack of remorse.
Then the impossible happened. The defendant got up and turned to look at me. She began to weep, and with what seemed to be an unpremeditated statement, she said, "I am not going to stand here and make excuses for what I did. All I can say is that I messed up and that I am so sorry, Erin, for you and all those who have come to support you."
Through tears, she continued. "You are right Erin, I can live my life once I serve my sentence, but you will never have your life back, and for that I am so sorry."
The judge told her to go with the officer. Unafraid and feeling compelled, I jumped up, and walked as quickly as possible through the glass door into the courtroom.
"Wait," I exclaimed. "Jeanne, can I hug her?"
The state's attorney replied. "You'll have to ask her."
The defendant turned towards me. I approached her.
"Can I hug you," I asked vulnerably.
"Yes," she replied. We embraced.
The courtroom lost it. My mom and her mom sobbed loudly and When I walked back through the courtroom to the benches, I noticed that my mother had rushed over to her mother and they were embracing. My family and I then hugged every other member of her family. Everyone who had come with her all said they were sorry. Her lawyer walked up to me, hugged me with tears in his eyes and apologized. Dennis later told me that her lawyer had shaken his hand, and told Dennis that "he had been wrong."
According to my sister and everyone in the audience, there wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom, including the officers and another person waiting for her case to be called. The judge quickly exited the stand after seeing us embrace, and with a crack in his voice, asked for a recess.
In that moment, I was freed in so many ways. Freed because I had said what I had intended to say, and was able to share the story that for two years I had kept pent up inside.
But when I look back now, I have no regrets. Did I call this tragedy on myself because I gave God permission to do what he thought fit, and glorify himself? No. But I did get what I asked for.
Forgiveness is a gift. I not only gave the offender the best gift before prison, I received many in return—the ability to enter marriage freed from the bondage of bitterness, and the freedom to extend myself the grace to accept what was lost and move on with life.
My physical demonstration of forgiveness turned out to be the most healing and powerful moment of my life. I demonstrated God’s love to a stranger who didn’t deserve forgiveness, because God did that for me.
MADD’s statement on faith and forgiveness: MADD is an organization not related to any faith or denomination, we serve everyone regardless of their personal beliefs.
We do recognize that faith can play a part in someone’s healing journey and wanted Erin to share how it played a part in her own, forgiveness can also very from person to person. Many people find that forgiveness is something that they embrace or reject, MADD respects each person’s choices about their own healing journey which may or may not include forgiveness. We thank Erin for sharing her own healing journey.
Erin's story is also featured in Chicago Now.
This is the second in a three-part series by drunk driving victim Erin Rollins:
And here I sat, on those same hard, wooden benches in the Criminal Court Division Building of Cook County, that I had sat on several times before, and once again I faced the offender whom I had laid next to that initial night in the ER.
My opinion of the defendant wasn’t solely based on how she acted in court, but also on how she behaved when I wasn't present. In fact, the state trooper, who I recently talked to for the first time, told me that she was more arrogant and narcissistic than any other young lady he had interacted with in his career, and as a result he took a special interest in my case. He also noted that each time he saw her in court, he, the state’s attorney and the victim’s advocate would marvel at her lack of remorse.
This brings me to the moment of truth.
There I sat, with the 14 other people who had accompanied me on this day, including the Victim’s Advocate who had worked with me on my case since the beginning of the court process, all eagerly awaiting the defendant’s decision.
Would she finally take responsibility and plead guilty, or choose to go to trial, which would be many more months of court dates, waiting, and just plain agony?
I still had flashbacks, not of the actual crash, but of what my mind invented it would be like, despite having no actual memory of the incident. I have memory of moments before, and about 20-30 minutes afterwards. But, in trying to understand what happened, my brain fills in the blanks. I often imagine the point of impact, me seeing her car right before she crashed into mine, headlights blaring in my eyes, and words I know I probably said: "Oh my God......."
I often feel the same emotions I felt in the moment, even though I can't physically remember it. And that feeling is of complete and utter helplessness; there is nothing I can do to change what is about to happen. That emotion alone has haunted me for two years. Although I know God allowed what happened to occur for a reason, it doesn't change the trauma. My brain doesn't know the difference, even if my mind does. Because my body remembers what my brain won't allow me to.
These are the things I relive every time I step into the courtroom. Facing the defendant was like facing my attempted murderer. And worse, she had showed no humanity up until this point. She gave off the impression that she did not care. I wanted her to care about, and feel remorse for, what she had done, even more than I wanted her to go to jail. Because if she didn’t, I knew what had happened to me could easily happen to someone else.
When our case was called, the 4'10, black-haired, now 24-year-old woman walked swiftly with her lawyer to the stand. The judge presented the charges against her: Class 4 felony for aggravated DUI causing great bodily harm. He asked her how she wanted to plea. She conceded.
The sound of that word rang through the courtroom. I could barely hold my emotions. My sister, Nikki, squeezed my arm.
The judge then called my sister to the stand to read her victim impact statement. We sat there and listened, as Nikki recounted the fear that at any moment her sister, “best friend and soul mate” could die.
And, she discussed her, and her husband’s losses too. How she had shut down her practice as a psychologist for weeks to be with me at the hospital as much as possible, losing thousands of dollars of income.
Then it was my turn. I wiped my tears as I hobbled to the stand, trying to prevent myself from weeping.
I started to read. The defendant and her lawyer sat at a table inside of the courtroom, while our friends and families sat in benches that looked like pews just outside of the glass.
My victim impact statement was as real and honest as I could make it. I didn't hold anything back. To withhold even the most gruesome and personal details would deprive the offender of knowing exactly how her decision had impacted another person.
I even recounted how she had asked for permission to go to Las Vegas only a year prior. The judge granted her request, and she had posted several photos of her bare belly on Instagram with the caption, "Loving life."
I continued reading, "and while you are baring your perfectly intact belly, I am carrying around a scar and a poop bag on mine. You wrote, ‘loving life.’ At least if you are too ashamed to admit wrongdoing, you could have the human decency to not rub in the fact that you are loving life while I’m sitting here begging God to pee.”
I then detailed how a potential love interest before the crash told me he was no longer attracted to me afterwards. And I wondered if any man would love me despite my newfound disabilities.
I said, "And as happy as I am to have met, and will be marrying, the man of my dreams, I am equally sad. Equally sad that my wedding day will not be quite as I imagined it. I am sad that I can't do many of the things with Dennis that we both love to do.”
I could hear a murmur of weeping throughout my statement. Then Dennis lost it. I saw my future-mother-in-law now sitting next to him cradling his head while he wailed.
The defendant's lawyer wiped away his tears. I was equally surprised by the defendant’s reaction, but nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
Erin's story is also featured in Chicago Now.
This is the first in a three-part series by Drunk Driving Victim Erin Rollins:
My entire body shook. My closest friends, family and I had waited for this day for months.
October 18, 2016 represented two years of waiting. Two years spent in-and-out of hospitals undergoing several surgeries, totaling six thus far, and hundreds of hours of physical and occupational therapy.
Everyone who had supported me hoped for a conviction and agreed the offender should go to jail. This agreement wasn’t due to unforgiveness; rather, the knowledge that forgiveness and justice are separate things.
I had forgiven her for the reckless decision that led to her driving at a BAC of twice the legal limit, traveling the wrong way on the expressway and hitting my car in a head-on collision. But I had trouble forgiving her complete lack of remorse for those two years.
I may not have physically died November 9, 2014, but I lost my life. The Erin I once knew no longer existed. My body was damaged, broken, ravaged, and sliced open several times. It left me with three long scars, one from right below my ribs to my groin area, one from the middle of my back to the tailbone and one stretching horizontally from my left rectus muscle to only a couple of inches away from the back scar.
I had lost so much—my car, job, independence and a possible love interest to name a few—with my body being the most devastating. But there was one thing that sustained me through it all: a prayer that I had prayed most of 2014.
I prayed for my best friend and father to return to Christ, to meet my husband and to make an impact with my life. After seven months, God answered.
On November 6, 2014, I took my little black-and-white Pomeranian for a walk, and asked God once again what it would take for the things I had prayed for to happen. This time, I heard God speak to me as if he was standing right next to me. He shared with me that something tragic needed to happen.
There I stood surprised, but without fear. So I made a request.
“OK, God, do whatever you need to do, just don’t take my life.”
On November 9, 2014, my life changed forever.
At approximately 1:29 am, the same drunk driver that I faced today struck me head-on.
I truly believe that had I not asked God to spare my life, I wouldn’t have made it.
On impact, my spine shattered. I sustained two burst fractures at L5 and S4, rendering me paralyzed—I couldn’t feel or move anything below the waist. I also suffered tremendous injury internally leading to holes in my bowels, colon and small intestine; a severed iliac artery, lacerated liver, fractured sternum, three broken ribs, and a concussion. My right foot broke in three different places, and the seatbelt tore my left rectus muscle in half.
The paramedics, state trooper and hospital staff told me repeatedly that I was lucky to be alive.
The surgeons explained that I needed two emergency surgeries and they needed to decide which to do first: repair the holes to my organs that would cause sepsis and kill me, or decompress my spine to prevent complete and permanent paralysis. Needless-to-say, they chose to repair my organs first.
The next day, the surgeons wanted to conduct an 8-12 hour spinal fusion. My family wasn’t comfortable with the pace they wanted to move because of how critical of a condition I was in. I was subsequently transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital two days later. There, they fused my spine, inserted two titanium rods and 10 screws, and removed as many shards of bone as possible that had taken residence in my spinal canal. The neurosurgeons said there was more damage than they anticipated, and they weren’t sure if I would ever walk again.
The third emergency surgery became necessary because the first one to repair holes in my intestines failed, and I became septic. The surgeons said had they not caught it in time, I would’ve died hours later.
I spent six more weeks in inpatient rehab learning to sit-up, catheterize myself, clean and change the colostomy that was formed during my sepsis surgery, and walk using a walker, while suspended in a harness that hung from the ceiling.
By discharge from rehab, I had survived the most difficult part of my life thus far, but I couldn’t have imagined the task of learning how to live once more with a completely different body and set of circumstances, as well as the emotional task of processing such profound trauma.
Additionally, for the first year and a half afterwards, I was too weak to attend court dates for the criminal case against the drunk driver who almost took my life. When it finally came time to read my victim impact statement in court almost two years post crash, I could never have anticipated what it would be like to face my offender, and the lesson I would learn on forgiveness that day.
Erin's story is also featured in Chicago Now.
February 7, 2007 was the day that forever changed Karen Mertes’ life path. Karen, a Lieutenant Colonel serving in the United States Air Force, was driving the speed limit on the interstate when she was struck from behind by a drunk driver traveling over 100 mph.
He had a blood alcohol level of nearly three times the legal limit and the crash resulted in both vehicles being totaled. The axle in Karen’s car snapped in half, and her vehicle’s undercarriage dragged creating sparks on the interstate for several hundreds of feet.
Karen remembers being horrified at the smell of burning rubber in her vehicle. “During this time which seemed like an eternity to me, as my life hung in the balance, I made a bargain with God. I promised God that if I were blessed to live, I would spend the rest of my life helping others.”
Karen survived the crash but sustained multiple brain bleeds and was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Her memory, cognitive functioning, and personality were all impacted. Karen remembers looking at herself in the mirror and no longer recognizing who she was. She underwent months of physical therapy, and after rehabilitation returned to work.
Karen holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and two Master’s Degrees in Business Administration, and Cost Estimating & Analysis. Her education and professional attributes provided her with the required experience to excel as a Lieutenant Colonel.
When Karen returned to work, she found that she could no longer perform the complex memory-driven cognitive tasks that her job required. She had to embark towards a different direction in her life, and though devastated that she had to leave a career that she loved and worked endlessly for, she made a commitment to use her story for others.
“In every situation we have a choice, to stay a victim or become victorious despite all odds. I chose to be better, not bitter.”
The driver that made the choice to drink and drive and injured Karen, continued to make choices that harmed her. Before the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) results came back, he fled the state. The news was heart breaking. As she continued to face new challenges head-on and find ways to embrace her TBI, the person that caused so much pain and suffering chose to flee his problems and not be accountable for his actions.
Karen lived years thinking that he would never be punished, and that the criminal justice system was not looking for him or making the case a priority. She became her own advocate and it was through building relationships in the community that the Sheriff’s Department reached out to the State Attorney General and worked with other law enforcement agencies to extradite the offender back to the State of Florida. Five years after the crash, justice was served.
Since the crash, Karen has become a professional speaker sharing her story of triumph through tragedy with thousands of people across our country, inspiring audiences to achieve their highest potential no matter what. She is the founder of Fulfill Your Destiny, a nonprofit organization whose signature program awards ‘Business Builder Grants’ to entrepreneurs who have experienced life changing events of their own and desire to take their businesses to the next level. Karen continues to deliver on her promise and inspires others.
“I have come to own my TBI, I am determined not to be owned by it. My TBI has taken me to positive directions that I never would have gone. I found what most would have deemed obstacles have in fact become opportunities for different kinds of success.”
Kelli Willoughby's parents were hit by a drunk driver on Memorial Day 2003. Read her story and join her in remembering her mother this year:
Memorial Day is a day to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our nation and although my mother was not in the armed forces, I honor and remember her, during this holiday.
On June 3, 2003, my parents were on their way to a friend’s house when they were hit head on by a drunk driver. My father was driving their SUV, my mother was in the passenger seat. The drunk driver, driving a semi, had passed out at the wheel and drifted into my parent’s lane on a curved bridge.
While my parents were out, I was babysitting my siblings. We had just ordered pizza and settled in for a movie, when I was called by the local Sheriff’s office. They asked me to come to the scene of the crash, and when I showed up it like the end of the world to me. All I could see were fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances. They informed me that my parents were being airlifted to Tampa General Hospital.
At two in the morning, my mother was going into her last surgery of the night. She had severe open breaks on both legs and the doctors had a very difficult time stabilizing her enough to perform any kind of surgery on her. When they finally got to operate, a tiny piece of tissue lodged into one of her blood vessels and stopped her heart for six minutes. After about three weeks in the ICU, it was determined that she had no brain activity and according to her living will, we took her off life support. Even though this was an act that she clearly wanted, giving up the desperate hope that she would open her eyes again and speak to me was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. A little over a month from the date of the crash, my beautiful, smart, wonderful mother, Rhonda Davis, died on July 11, 2003.
My father, a member of the United State Army, suffered injuries that he continues to battle through to this day. His personal and professional life was shifted off course by someone else’s decisions.
I started this blog by referring to Memorial Day and its association with my mom. Every year when Memorial Day comes we see countless pictures of heroes buried at Arlington National Cemetery, families laying wreaths at headstones, and faces of men and women who gave all to protect our country. My mom was not a Soldier who died in Afghanistan or a Marine who was killed in Iraq. However, she was my hero. She was the person who made me who I am, who taught me right from wrong, and who loved me unconditionally.
She was a dedicated military spouse who put her family above all else and who did her part to serve alongside my father. She faced frequent deployments, frequent moves, and held our family together just the same. Her final resting place is at Arlington National Cemetery, an honor she earned through her 23 years of being a military spouse. Even though she is not a service member, I am proud that my mother, my hero, is forever among the greatest heroes of our nation. On Memorial Day and every day, we should remember the brave souls who gave their life for our freedom, but I will also forever remember the bravest, strongest woman I have ever known.
In December of 2012, Nancylee Salerno was returning home from holiday shopping when a 29-year old drunk driver entered an I-84 off-ramp traveling in the wrong direction. Several cars swerved to avoid the wrong-way driver, but Nancylee did not have enough time and her car was hit head-on. Nancylee was rushed to the hospital where she succumbed to her injuries a few hours later on December 23rd, just two days before Christmas. She was 61 years young.
Nancylee was a beloved wife, mother to five children, and grandmother to three. She was a long-time resident of Southington and is remembered fondly for her endless energy, giving spirit, and love for children. She was a fighter and proud breast cancer survivor. Nancylee was actively involved in the family businesses, Tops Market and Carmela Marie, when she wasn’t practicing her nursing profession serving her pediatric patients. Her family cherishes the time they had with her, but feel she was robbed of enjoying her retirement, traveling, and spending more time with her grandchildren, many of whom she will never meet.
Inspired to keep Nancylee’s memory alive and to support others affected by the crime of drunk driving, family members came to their first Tri-Town Walk Like MADD. The year after, more family members joined and their business became a sponsor and their passion for helping others grew. MADD Connecticut is honored to dedicate the 2017 Tri-Town Walk Like MADD in memory of Nancylee Salerno. The Salerno family has shown outpouring support from attending walk committee meetings to team participation and sponsoring and donating products to the walk. MADD Connecticut is grateful for the hard work and compassion the Salerno family has shown.
Here Nancylee is shown (left) with her husband John and daughter Emily Salerno Gould (right)
When Cathy Dewitt, Cody’s mom, visualized her oldest son’s high school graduation she dreamed a time of joy, celebration, and planning ahead for the next stage of his life. Cathy was excited about the numerous possibilities for Cody; she never imagined that she would sit next to an empty chair covered with flowers and an unworn cap and gown.
Cody was a few months shy of graduation, and beginning the next chapter of his life. He had done the hard work—completed homework, paid attention in class, participated in projects and earned his degree. Yet due to someone’s choice to drink and drive, Cody did not live to see the fulfillment of all of his hard work and plans.
On December 24, 2011, Cody hugged his mother goodbye. He went to a friend’s house to enjoy the last of his winter break. Cody and his friends hung out in the friend’s garage and drank alcohol until 1:15 AM, when they were asked to leave. Cody was riding in a passenger seat when the driver lost control of the car and hit a tree. Less than a mile away from home, the impact of the crash killed Cody instantly.
Cathy describes the next year of her life as a blur. She shares few memories of the day that she learned her son was killed. She remembers Cody’s friends at her door telling her that he had been in a crash. She remembers arriving at the scene of a blocked off road and seeing the word “coroner” on the side of the vehicle. She remembers feelings of shock and haze, being physically present but mentally and emotionally absent. That shock stayed with her for an entire year, “I don’t remember the first year after the crash, by the second year I started to realize that the crash did happen, and by the third year I started to grieve”.
Cody was a country boy at heart. He loved cutting wood, hunting, camping, fishing and being outdoors. “He was so active and always had to be doing something. As soon as he turned 16 he got a job to help me out.” Cathy, Cody, and Ben (Cathy’s youngest son) were a team. Together they were one. They did everything with each other and for each other. Cathy recalls a conversation with Cody days before the crash, “he told me that he wanted to have fun for a little bit before he had to grow up.”
A night of fun and someone’s choice to drink and drive changed many lives forever. Cody died, the driver was sentenced to six years in prison, Ben lost his best friend and big brother, Cody’s girlfriend lost her first love, and Cathy struggles to live the rest of her life without her son.
Their stories are examples of the devastating consequences of drinking and driving. Cathy believes that this is a community problem for which we are all responsible to prevent. “It affects more people than you’ll ever know, EMT, hospital staff, bystanders, neighbors, friends, everyone”. Cathy wants young people to think of how many lives they touch every day. She shares her story in hopes that she can prevent others from experiencing the grief that she lives with daily. Cathy now volunteers as a speaker at Victim Impact Panels and is committed to help MADD fight for its mission of No More Victims®. Drinking and driving is a 100 percent preventable crime, but even one life lost due to underage drinking is unacceptable. There needs to be zero tolerance for underage drinking considering two out of three underage drinking deaths do not even involve a motor vehicle.
MADD encourages parents talk to their children about the dangers of underage drinking. Kids who start drinking young are seven times more likely to be in an alcohol-related crash. MADD believes by taking proactive steps to protect our loved ones, especially our children, we can achieve a future of No More Victims®.
On August 14, 1997, I was able to witness the birth of my nephew, Damion Michael Henderson.
For the next 16 years, 6 months and 23 days, I watched him grow from an infant into a young man. He was a loving, caring person who dreamed of going to college and playing professional football.
Damion was like most other little boys. As a toddler he liked Blues Clues, then Pokémon cards (because his older brother liked them) and Spiderman.
I watched as he started school, graduated from Kindergarten, made new friends and turned into a “social butterfly”. I remember when was so excited when learned to read.
He was so thoughtful, if he was going to get a treat, he’d want one for his brothers too. He was just a down to earth kid who took life one day at a time. He was a friend to everyone he met.
One of the last Instagram selfies Damion took said “Dewey’s Pizza, then Gameworks. Amazing Day ahead”. Little did he know that on the way home from that outing his life would come to an abrupt end. That amazing day turned into a tragedy that we are all suffering with. The adult who had been entrusted to keep the kids safe (a friend’s father) decided to drink while on the outing with the boys (his son, Damion and another friend).
He then drove at rates in excess of 100 mph, losing control of the vehicle. Damion was ejected from the vehicle, dying a short time later as his two friends watched. The father tried to get rid of evidence, even stepping over Damion as he lay there dying. Our children deserve better than this.
Our family has not been the same since this tragedy. Holidays and birthdays are not the same. We now have to “visit” Damion at a gravesite. The High School Graduation that Damion would have attended in 2016 was a sorrowful event for us. His school placed a Graduation cap, gown and flowers on an empty seat where Damion would have sat. The school band played a song in tribute to him.
Not only did this affect our family, but the driver’s family, the other friend who witnessed this along with the many other people who stopped to help at the crash scene as well as all of the many friends Damion had.
Our hearts go out to everyone who has endured the tragedy of losing someone to the senseless act of drunk or drugged driving and our hope is to end these tragedies. Kids shouldn’t have to worry that the person taking them for a ride may end up killing or hurting them.
By Joshua Jahn
Drunk driving victim
It was at her 8th-grade graduation that I first noticed her.…the girl who would eventually become my wife… I met Mandy and, I swear, she had the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.
And I had the honor of looking into those eyes for years, including a beautiful stretch of almost a decade when we were inseparable...
My three-year-old son Ryan was already looking forward to his birthday on Dec.29th. As a volunteer firefighter, I was so proud he talked about following in my footsteps...
Kaitlyn was that perfect baby all parents want. Childcare volunteers at church used to fight over watching her. And she was at such an inquisitive age...
The only Christmas celebration we had all together with my wife, my son and my 11-month-old daughter before drunk driving ripped them away was in 2007.
We had a fresh tree. I was so protective of sweet baby Kaitlyn. I’d run outside to warm the car if she had to go out. Mandy and I stayed up until 3 a.m. putting together a train set for Ryan, and I took a picture of him jumping for joy with his sister in the background confused about all the excitement he had because of his present on Christmas morning.
Now, I am asking you for a different type of present – one you don’t have to wrap. Will you donate today in honor of every family missing a loved one? Will you donate in honor of all victims?
I left this part until last...the part about the crash because I want to focus on my family's life, not their death.
Ten days before Thanksgiving, a woman sat at a bar drinking for SIX hours, before staggering to her car, putting the keys into the ignition, and speeding away. Her blood alcohol content was TWICE the legal limit. She hit my wife and my two children going more than 70 mph on a back road, and the force of the impact snapping a nearby telephone pole like a twig.
When the doctors asked for permission to stop resuscitation efforts on Kaitlyn, I whispered to her, “I am sorry I couldn’t protect you.” When I had to say goodbye to Ryan, I told him, "You will always be my hero."
I returned to the field to make a vow to Mandy. I told her I will move heaven and earth to bring as much meaning to their deaths as they brought to my life.
My greatest regret is the future that the repeat offender that killed my baby girl stole from me. I will never get to watch Kaitlyn graduate or make a toast at Ryan’s wedding.
These future moments, the common and uncommon ones, that’s what I miss. That’s why I work toward a future I can make happen – a future of No More Victims®.
Will you join with me in donating to MADD to prevent other families from experiencing this pain and tragedy. When you give today, Nationwide will DOUBLE your donation.
And that's a prsent that we all truly need - the end of drunk driving.