by Terri Hoover
(This is the third in a month-long series of guest blog posts from National Safety Council survivor advocates. We are sharing our stories in honor of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.)
“In order to find the treasure, you will have to follow the omens. God has prepared a path for everyone to follow. You just have to read the omens that he left for you." —from The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
December 26, 2005, began like many other days but ended like no other. My son Jake was 18 and in love for the first time.
Jake was the only child his father and I had, so as a young boy he was always trying to find ways to pull us all together. I remarried when he was 6, and he was crazy about my new husband, but he still struggled with wanting us all to live as one big, happy family. One day he told me that his perfect house would be really long, with his dad and stepmom living on one side, my husband and me on the other and him in the middle!
When I got pregnant with my second son, Gage, Jake was so excited. He would call every time he went to his dad's house just to check on me. Then, when Gage was born with Down syndrome, Jake said he thought he was perfect. He had always loved babies, so it came natural to him to just sit and hold Gage for sometimes an hour at a time. He did the same thing when Eli came along.
One day after church, Jake cried all the way home. When I asked him what was going on, he said he'd been thinking about the times he'd been around people with special needs and hadn't paid any attention to them. He said, "I never want to do that again, because I don't want anyone to treat Gage like he is different."
On December 26, 2005, Jake decided to leave our Christmas celebration early to go visit his girlfriend. He was so excited to see her. He drove at a high rate of speed, had a blowout and then flipped his SUV. He was not wearing his seat belt, so he was ejected from the vehicle. He died instantly.
Since we were still celebrating Christmas with the family, when Jake's father called we knew it couldn't be good news. Mentally, you cannot grasp the finality of it; physically, your body rejects even the thought of it and it seems to need to purge the very idea. Punching, screaming, crying and finally throwing up, every fiber in my being wanted to rid my body and mind of this horrible event. Yet as I came to, so to speak, looked around and took in the sight of my entire family in hysterics, I knew it was real.
Identifying the body, picking out a casket and what he would wear into eternity, trying to explain to his two little brothers that "KK" isn't coming home, figuring out who would speak at the celebration of his life and probably a hundred other things that I can't remember were shrouded in a dark fog of confusion, fear and pain.
The first year I moved from space to space, sometimes not remembering where I had been for hours at a time. The second year, I woke up and realized it was not just a bad dream; Jake was not coming home for Christmas, that was not his truck that just passed me and I would not be going to the Rangers game to celebrate his birthday but to the cemetery.
My son was funny. Quick-witted. And he was a huge hugger—he hugged everyone. His smile could light up a room. Once he met a relative of mine who acted very negative, and later on he pretended to wipe something off his sleeve and said, "Wow, she is so negative, you have to wipe it off after being around her. I hope you are never like that, Mom."
Little did he know that she had lost a son 30 years earlier in a drunk-driving crash. She'd never recovered from the grief.
That was one of my first thoughts when Jake died…that I could never be like that, because it would not honor him.
I always joke that if God wants to get my attention, he needs to send me a billboard. About a year after Jake's death, I woke up after dreaming about seeing his face on one. Not knowing exactly what that was all about, I dismissed it at first. Then, I started doing some research.
I learned that a large percentage of teen drivers who are killed each year are like Jake—they aren't wearing seat belts. Car crashes are now the biggest cause of death for American teens—more than 2,000 were killed in 2014, and over half of them were not wearing seat belts!
Let me say that again—car crashes are the biggest cause of death for American teens. And in over half of those deaths, they are not wearing a seat belt. Wearing one as a front-seat passenger actually reduces your risk of death by 45 percent.
As I learned more, I began to think about how many other mothers would be going through this. So I started a billboard campaign.
Each billboard shows Jake's face, birth date and death date, along with a direct statement like "Jake never made it home." I realized that if I could get young people's attention where they are—in the car—then maybe I could prevent this from happening to someone else's Jake.
That was the beginning of clickit4life.net. We also post stories of other familes who have lost a teenage son or daughter.
Two weeks ago, I attended a National Safety Council conference in Chicago in honor of Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The conference was for people who'd lost a loved one because of distracted driving, who wanted to learn more about how to spread awareness. After it ended, I sat in the airport waiting for my flight back to Dallas, and started praying about what I'd just learned and experienced. Then that familar doubt began to creep in.
Once in a while, I'll have a moment of doubt, wondering whether the problem I'm up against is just too big. But it seems whenever this happens, God gives me another sign, a nudge, so to speak, whether it's a new donor, a call from a radio station or even a face in the crowd.
When I finished praying, I looked up. The crowd parted, and just like in a movie, there stood Jake's girlfriend, the one he'd been racing to see that fateful day.
The odds of running into someone in an airport in another city, in another state, even, are extremely slim.
I was sitting facing about 200 people in line to board that plane (because my group was the last to board), and there she was.
She'd befriended me on Facebook a few months earlier, but other than that, we'd had no contact at all for nine years. Since I had connected to the airport's free Wi-Fi for 30 minutes, I went to message her…but I had timed out! So I got up and walked over.
She smiled that million-dollar smile Jake had fallen in love with so long ago, and said, "Hi, Mom." (Or maybe she didn't say that—maybe she just said "hi" and my mind added the "Mom.") Our conversation was short.
As the plane was boarding, I took my place back in line and I smiled to myself. My heavenly Father had thrown me another bone!
And it felt about the size of a billboard.
Terri Hoover is a mom and a hairdresser in Dallas. She loves Jesus and her family and tries to live life to the fullest every day. Since Jake's death, she has been placing billboards around the Dallas Metroplex to encourage seat belt safety during the times of year when there are more teens on the road: Christmas, spring break and summer. Each billboard costs about $1,800 to put up, and is viewed by about 2.7 million drivers during that month. The billboards are only possible through donations from caring friends, companies and sometimes perfect strangers. Visit clickit4life.net today to learn how you can help. Terri's goal is to put up signs nationwide to help curb this terrible epidemic, which is affecting teens throughout the country.