Eighteen years ago, as our shattered family faced our first Christmas holiday without our 16-year-old daughter, Helen Marie, I could not have imagined introducing myself to you as MADD’s new National President.
I came to MADD in the months after Helen Marie died a sudden, violent death by an alcohol- and marijuana-impaired teen driver. Just as suddenly, we faced the impossible tasks of funeral arrangements and criminal court proceedings, of organ donation and boxing up her things forever. We faced a grief so profound it hardly seemed survivable.
Until that sunny afternoon in our hometown of Miami, my husband John and I had our dream family: a boy and a girl, named for each of us. John and John. Helen and Helen Marie. Our daughter came first. When John followed three years later, Helen Marie was thrilled, until she learned he wasn’t going back. But she learned to love him, deeply. They were imperfect, well-adjusted children. They were everything my husband and I had prayed for.
On June 1, 2000, our dream family was torn apart. It was a normal day, except that Helen Marie was nervous. She was going to direct a school play the next day, and although she’d acted many times, this was a new role for her. She wanted to go rollerblading to work off her stress.
I wanted her to stay home; I’d been traveling for a few days, and we had so much to catch up on. But as she laced up her rollerblades, she told me not to worry. She stuck to a regular route. She used the crosswalks. She would be right back.
John, 13, wanted to go, too, but she asked me to keep him home because she wanted to go fast. That was Helen Marie – always quick. We called her HM because it was so much faster.
At the end of the driveway, she spun to face me. She blew me a kiss and told me she loved me. And she took off, blonde hair flying behind her.
This is how I choose to remember her.
In those grief-blurred weeks that followed, pamphlets arrived from the Miami-Dade Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. At first, I could not look at them. But later, at the suggestion of a friend, I called.
I cannot fully explain all that MADD gave to me. At the most basic level, they provided information. At the most profound, the inspiring men and women who walked ahead of me showed me that I would survive the pain. They showed me that one day, I might even smile again.
They gave me the priceless gift of hope.
MADD also gave me a platform. I could only lean on it in the beginning. Then I stood on it. Slowly, I learned that I could fight from it. I could educate from it. For 11 years, as a volunteer, I tried to return what I had received. I spent another eight years as a staff member, facilitating MADD’s prevention programs in South Florida and talking to parents and children about the tragic consequences of underage drinking. I told Helen Marie’s story, because there is power in our stories. They unite us. They save lives.
As your new MADD National President, I want to help survivors and victims of drunk and drugged driving. I want people to know that they don’t have to be victims for the rest of their lives. I want them to understand that the pain, though permanent, isn’t defining. It can be channeled into something life-changing – and life-saving.
I want to educate. Drunk driving is still the No. 1 killer on our roads. This is unacceptable. We know how to reduce drugged driving and end this 100 percent preventable crime.
I am so grateful to the people who came before me. And I am so grateful for the opportunity to be your new National President. I look forward to working with each of you. Together, we can save lives.