By Marilyn Busch
The strong and steady voice of Rebecca White echoed through the packed student assembly at the Smithfield High School auditorium as she spoke to the student body – approximately 740 students representing all four grades at the school on Friday, May 3. All four classes at the school listened in rapt silence as she recounted the moment that her father told her that she was the sole survivor of a deadly accident that took the life of her mother, Marsha Bowman and her best friend, Katie DeCubellis that fateful night on Route 4 in East Greenwich.
“He was holding my hand, and he squeezed it, and he said, ‘Beck, Mom, and Katie didn’t make it…I looked at him, and I could hear what he was saying, but what he was saying was “Beck, you’re never going to see your Mom again. The day you graduate from High School she won’t be there. The day you get married, she won’t be there… she won’t be able to hold her first grandchild and say “oh, he looks just like you. You’re going to be such a great mom.”
A drunk driver had struck their car from behind, sending it across to the other side of the highway, when the vehicle was again then hit by an oncoming vehicle and torn in half. The families later found out that the driver that had rear-ended their car had a blood-alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit, as well as both marijuana and cocaine in his system. The reason that he was not looking at the road while speeding along at 80 mph was that he was reaching for a cigarette that had fallen on the floor of his truck.
White directs the student’s attention to the overhead projection, showing a jarring photo of the wreckage. She points out the single seat that was hers – still upright, and seemingly untouched within the crushed metal car frame.
Rebecca White, who was 14 years old at the time, was lucky. She survived that fateful crash and found the strength to begin sharing her story to prevent drunk driving and how the experience has transformed her life. In learning how to forgive the drunk driver who was responsible for the crash, White found a way to move on and find happiness as well. In 2011, Rebecca was chosen, out of millions of people, to speak about the power of forgiveness for the penultimate Oprah Winfrey show in Chicago.
“I have been publicly speaking about my drunk driving crash for over 19 years now,” White tells me after the assembly, “and every time I present it is never easy. October 29, 1999, was the worst day of my life, but I feel it is important that I share my story to whomever wants to hear it. My hope is that people will learn from others’ mistakes and realize how selfish drunk driving really is.”
White’s speaking program was chosen by Above the Influence, a student group led by school nurse Cathy Riley and Substance Abuse Counselor, Rebecca Young. “Every spring, as we approach prom season, the school hosts some type of event to remind students about the dangers of drinking and driving, “ explains Principal Daniel P. Kelley. “We were able to bring in Rebecca White through the support of the Smithfield High School Parent Council who covered the speaker fee. We appreciate their support a great deal.”
In addition to speaking about the drunk driving crash, and forgiveness allowing her to survive the aftermath of such a loss, White presents her “5 Simple Guidelines” to living a happy life. Within these guidelines, she instructs students how to make good choices in their own lives, to utilize the power of laughter to combat stress and urges them to take time for self-care.
Judging by the student’s respectful attention to White’s hour-long presentation, her personal message against drunk driving and wisdom about living a happier life resonated with the teens in attendance. When asked if she finds it hard to connect with today’s youth, she tells me that she has never found that to be a challenge. “No matter what age you are we all just want the same thing, and that is to be treated with respect. Throughout my presentation I never tell anyone what to do,” concludes White. “I hope they got something out of the presentation, and I was able to help at least one student today.”