Within hours of 15-year-old Nioami Lazicki-Gaston being struck and killed by an alleged drunken driver on a Middle Township roadway, parents Christina and Bill Gaston had decided to begin a campaign to make the road safer.
Many parents who lose children turn from tragedy to activism; it’s a way to deal with grief and find a purpose again.
“Parents are not supposed to watch their child die. It’s against the way nature is supposed to work,” said Mindy Shemtov, the executive director of The Alcove Center for Grieving Children & Families in Northfield. “People have all of this love for someone and have to find something to do with it.”
As a result, Shemtov said, many of these parents start advocating for specific causes associated with how their child died.
“The pain they feel is so intense, they don’t want someone else to go through it. And they feel that they need to do something so that their child’s death wasn’t for nothing,” Shemtov said. “It’s a way to memorialize them.”
Bill Elliot — whose son Ensign John R. Elliot was killed 12 years ago by a drunken driver — turned his grief into the engine behind the national HERO campaign for designated drivers. The Elliotts also spearheaded new legislation, including “John’s Law,” which requires New Jersey police to immediately impound the vehicles of suspected drunken drivers.
But the harmful actions of others is not always what turns parents into advocates.
Lynda Gazzara’s 18-year-old son, Nick — a student at Sacred Heart High School in Vineland — was killed when he lost control of his vehicle on an icy road and collided with an oncoming truck in 2010. The Buena Vista Township mother still organizes two charity soccer tournaments every year during which lessons about safe and defensive driving are preached.
“At the very beginning it was very difficult. But this is the right thing to do. Even though Nicky wasn’t wearing his seat belt, his wrong (action) could save someone else’s life,” Gazzara said.
At a tournament earlier this summer, Vineland emergency responders demonstrated the consequences of distracted driving in a re-created fatal accident scene.
“It’s not an easy thing for me to do, but I wanted to show the kids what could happen,” she said.
Egg Harbor Township resident Sherri Branca still grieves the loss of her 17-year-old son Ricci Branca Jr. in a car accident caused by a drunken driver near the Ocean City-Longport Bridge in July 2006.
“You never overcome the grief. You’ll always have that void in your life,” she said.
She and her husband, Ricci Sr., advocated for the state to pass “Ricci’s Law,” which requires ignition locks to be installed for drunken drivers. They are now working to get the law passed nationally so others won’t have to experience what they did.
“The one thing you can do is take it day by day. It’s hard. It really is hard. I call it catastrophic,” she said. “My husband says it’s like you are in a dream and will wake up one day and it will not be real.”
Even though they are still in the early stages of their grieving, the Gastons have petitioned the Cape May County Freeholder Board to improve pedestrian safety along the stretch of Bayshore Road where their daughter and her cousin Ashley Dauber, 13, of Philadelphia, were killed July 31.
The driver of the SUV that struck them was allegedly driving drunk at the time of the crash. Bayshore Road has long been the subject of complaints about poor lighting, an excessively high speed limit, the absence of rumble strips, and the lack of pedestrian safety measures such as curbs and sidewalks.
If the Gastons and their supporters are successful in getting sidewalks installed, they hope the road will be called “Faith’s Way.” Nioami’s middle name was Faith.
“I think we always took the safety of the road for granted,” said Bill Gaston, 35, of Middle Township. “Unfortunately, my daughter ended up being an example. Something needs to be done.”
Tuckerton resident Louise Hammell knows first-hand that encouraging words just after tragedy are often futile.
“The pain is so deep when you lose a child, nothing can fill it … nothing at all,” said Hammell, 59, whose 17-year-old son, Matthew, was killed by a drunken driver in 1995 while the teen was rollerblading with a friend in Little Egg Harbor Township.
Twice a month, Hammell tells a room full of convicted drunken drivers about her son — the boy he was and about the man he dreamed of being.
Hammell has also advocated for stricter penalties for repeat drunken drivers: The 34-year-old Barnegat Township resident who killed Matthew Hammell had 57 points on his then-suspended license, including six separate driving-while-intoxicated charges.
Her fight has taken her to the floor of the state Legislature, Congress and even the White House. In 2008, she published “That You May Know God Has a Purpose,” a book that chronicles how her son’s death affected her.
After Somers Point resident Donnah Marvel lost her 18-year-old son, Nickolas, to a drunken driver on Route 9 in Linwood in November 2004, she used her anger.
She worked hard to keep herself together — especially to continue to care for her daughter.
Marvel said she is involved in local organizations such as the HERO Campaign and the annual National Children’s Memorial Day vigil in Absecon for parents of children who have died. She built a monument on Route 9 where her son was killed and visits it every day.
“You do what you can do to keep you going,” she said.
After the Gastons brought their fight to the Cape May County freeholders, Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said the board will order a study on the conditions on Bayshore Road to see if changes are needed. Those conditions would have to meet certain criteria before changes can be made, he said.
This was little consolation, however. Similar studies were done before the girls were killed, multiple times. Thornton repeatedly reminded those in attendance that it was the tragic actions of a “criminal” that caused the accident, not road conditions.
“Nothing we do or say will bring any solace or lessen the heartache of these families at all,” Thornton said.
Shemtov from the Alcove Center agreed, to an extent.
“(Becoming an advocate) helps initially because it is a way to divert emotions and pain into something else,” she said. “But eventually people do have to go through their pain. Everybody has to go through it.”
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