Designated driver — it’s not just an empty phrase.

It’s a calling, a commitment to safety, an act of kindness that can have a lifesaving impact. At least, that’s what 20-year-old Janakae Toinette Sargent believed. That’s why, a few days before Thanksgiving in 2006, she was aimlessly driving around Lubbock waiting for a party to end. She had dropped off two friends earlier. They wanted to drink. She wanted to ensure they made it home safely.

Meet Janakae

Maybe it’s a mother’s love for her first born, but Kandi Wiley describes her daughter in a steady stream of adjectives and adverbs.

“She was smart. Janakae was beautiful…she was giddy…she was talented, stubborn, outspoken, opinionated, passionate and big-hearted,” Kandi said, deliberately and carefully recalling each unique trait. “I know I am biased, but I have heard from other people who said they saw her in the same light. She was set in her ways. She was strong in her beliefs.”

A poet with a love of animals, Janakae was in her third year at Texas Tech University where she was studying veterinarian medicine when she wasn’t playing in the marching band. She had a goal of playing every instrument before graduation.

“And she was well on her way to achieving that goal,” her mother laughed.

Janakae wanted to care for animals. She always had, even as a little girl.

“Janakae was always toting something home,” Kandi said. “She especially loved dogs, but we had everything from hermit crabs to potbelly pigs and cows.”

Why she was on the road

The text message came earlier than Janakae expected. One of her friends hit his alcohol limit early. He was ready to go. Janakae’s other friend planned to stay at the party, and she would return later for him. While taking her drunk friend home, Janakae couldn’t help but chastise him.

“You drank too much too fast. You should have listened to me, and you wouldn’t be like this right now,” she told her friend, who later shared the conversation with Kandi. She dropped him at his apartment.

He quickly realized Janakae was right. He sent a text message reading, “I’m sorry.”

She never saw the text message.

The crash

About the time the message arrived, Janakae was sitting at a red light waiting for her turn to proceed. She received a green arrow and inched forward.

But another driver later confirmed to have a blood alcohol concentration of .25 blasted through the intersection, ignoring her own red light. Police officers estimate she was going 100 miles per hour, maybe more. She never touched the breaks.

The driver immediately died. Janakae was immediately transported to a hospital.

At 2:44 a.m., Kandi received a call. She expected it to be her oldest son because Janakae, who she had spoken with a few hours earlier, had mentioned she might call him to keep her company while she waited for her friends.

Janakae's vehicle after the crash

Janakae’s vehicle after the crash

Instead, a strange voice greeted her.

“He told me Janakae was at the hospital and had been in a crash with a fatality. I didn’t know if my son was with her or not,” Kandi said.

She was four hours away, an eternity of waiting to find out if she would lose two children that night.

When she arrived in Lubbock, Janakae was on life support, breathing for herself about 50% of the time.

“She responded to my touch and voice when I spoke to her,” Kandi said. “Maybe it was just an involuntary response, but I find comfort in it.”

When she awoke, tests showed Janakae would likely be paralyzed from the waist down. But she never woke up. Four days later, doctors declared her clinically brain dead.

The day before Thanksgiving, her family stood by her grave.

The aftermath

When looking through her daughter’s possessions, Kandi found a poem written by her daughter with an eerie premonition. The poem imagines Janakae experiencing a drunk driving crash and becoming paralyzed as a result. She wrote it seven years before the crash almost to the day. 

“I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving with my family since the crash. The ripple effect from this one person’s bad decision continue to impact my life,” Kandi said. “It messed up so much. It’s one of those things where I just wish people would understand the devastation they can cause and make better choices.”

Now, Kandi speaks at Victim Impact Panels to help drunk driving offenders understand the consequences of their actions. Kandi shares her story at a police academy in Temple to help the new officers understand the importance of DUI enforcement. This grieving mother speaks to anyone who will listen.

“Sometimes, I feel discouraged and think no one is listening,” she said. “Then, I’ll receive a sign that someone heard me and that Janakae’s death was not without meaning.”

One result of this tragedy is what happened to Janakae’s two friends, including the one she argued with before the crash.

“The fact that she never saw his message haunts him,” Kandi said. “But they are both married now. One has a baby. Thanks to my daughter, they remained safe and have happy lives today.”