August 4, 2020
In the early morning hours of April 7, 2002, I received the call that is every parent’s worst nightmare. An Emergency Room nurse was calling to inform me that my 20-year old son Justin had been killed as he was leaving a party in a pasture in Winter Garden, FL. The 18-year old driver, who had been drinking, ran Justin over and left the scene.
For months following Justin’s death, the pain was so searing and gut wrenching, that I would pray for strength every night to get through the devastation and emptiness I felt from losing my first born and only son. I tried to make some type of sense as to why this had happened. The reality was and continues to be, that there is no making sense out of this kind of tragic loss. It just isn’t natural for a parent to bury their child.
As the details surrounding Justin’s death began to emerge, my mission became clear. In an effort to keep other families from suffering this same type of tragic devastation, I had to do what Justin would expect me to do as his Mother ; work hard to make the difference in his memory!
As a result of Justin’s story, we have changed the Florida Statutes regarding fatal hit and run crashes; increased awareness of Organ, Tissue, and Corneal Donation and moved forward in the education of our youth on making better choices than those choices that were made the early morning that Justin was killed.
On July 1, 2009, I formed Parents Encouraging Confident Choices, Inc. This 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization is dedicated to the education of our youth on making confident and responsible choices. My feeling is that confident and responsible in youth, will often transcend into a confident, responsible and successful adult. As part of my mission to educate our young people, I began presenting “Make The Right Choice” in the Spring of 2009 at select High Schools in Orange County, FL. While this 30 to 45-minute PowerPoint Presentation offers a snapshot into Justin’s life…and life since his death, it is both heartbreaking and hard-hitting as I explain that Justin’s death was an avoidable tragedy. It’s important that our young people realize that Justin’s Story could easily have been… their story. I also outline the contributing factors in his death; a phrase that I refer to as the “Domino Effect of Poor Choices”, to include Justin’s choice to be at that party. While this choice shouldn’t have cost him his life, it did. I’m sure if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t have walked back on the property that night, given the outcome. As evidenced, we don’t always get a “do over.” And most importantly, I finish up with how each student can make the difference in the lives of their friends and stop this tragic path of devastation.
Since Justin’s death, I have attended one heartbreaking funeral after the other of some of our local youth . In most cases, I would see the same young people attending these same funerals. I began to wonder if others had recognized this pattern. However, I had my “Aha ” moment when, during one of my first Speaking Events, I decided to ask a group of nearly 700-High School students, ages 16 to 17-years old, how many of them had been to the funeral of a friend in the last 5-years. When nearly half the room raised their hand, a gasp could be heard throughout the auditorium. Unbelievable. I was further enlightened when students began approaching me after I was done speaking, to voice their concerns about those friends whose partying was “out-of-control.”
At some point, I began to realize that our youth have a much greater influence among each other, than I could have with them or their parents could have or for that matter, that any adult could have. They just need to be encouraged to use that influence confidently and responsibly make the difference in the lives of their friends. After much thought, I chose to add what I felt would be the most important piece to my presentation; to utilize the opportunity that I was given to motivate and empower our young people to step up and hold each other accountable. As a friend, not only do they have a responsibility, but an obligation to their friendship, to go to the family of those friends that are going down that dangerous path of living life in the “Extreme.” It should be done without hesitation, and with the confidence of knowing that they are doing the right thing. The statistics are staggering. It is no longer an option to remain quiet if your friends are out of control. While they might lose the friendship in the short term by going to their family, they may also save their life. If they choose to remain quiet and a life is lost…then they will have to live with their decision, and even shoulder some of that responsibility. Would they choose to be selfish or selfless?
Jamie McWilliams, President/CEO
Parents Encouraging Confident Choices, Inc.
A 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization