- Associated Press - Friday, April 13, 2018

LOGAN, Utah (AP) - In the chaos of the high school lunchroom at Green Canyon High School, a memorial featuring photos of 120 teens killed on Utah roads offered a sobering message to students. Cassea Day and Savannah Roos, two juniors at Green Canyon, saw the exhibit for the first time Monday.

“It’s good to remind people that things like this are real,” Roos said.

Looking at the portraits, Day agreed: “Driving can have serious consequences if you’re not careful.”

Jenny Johnson is a public information specialist with the Utah Department of Health. For the past 10 years, she has worked with families who lost teens in car accidents. Together, they create memorials that honor their lives and remind others of the importance of driving responsibly.

“It’s meant to help drivers of all ages realize how our decisions on the road impact others,” Johnson said.

The memorial, which was created as part of the initiative Zero Fatalities, features 120 of the 285 teens who died on Utah roads in the last 10 years. Their families shared their portraits and stories with Johnson.

“We know when we ask them to share their stories, it’s really hard,” Johnson said. “It’s opening up a lot of wounds.”

Johnson said the families are motivated by the chance to prevent others from experiencing what they did.

“They do this hard thing because they care about other people,” Johnson said. “They want them to know that a split-second decision you make on the road can change someone’s life.”

The memorial emphasizes two key messages: Buckle up, and don’t drive distracted.

“For so many of these kids, if they’d been belted, they could have walked away,” Johnson said.

Every fall, the families of these teens meet up at the Family Remembrance Event, which Johnson described as “one of the best and worst days of the whole year.” Counselors help the families process their grief. The event also connects them with other families on the same journey.

“It’s been such an important part of healing for these families,” Johnson said.

In the past, the teens were memorialized in an annual book of their stories and pictures. As the project’s 10th anniversary approached, they decided they needed to do something bigger, Johnson said.

The memorial debuted at the Shops at South Town in Sandy during the Christmas shopping season, Johnson said. Since then, the families whose loved ones are represented in the exhibit have been invited to display the memorial in their communities.

Chad Hawkes, an elementary school teacher from Cache Valley, is the first family member to bring the exhibit to his community. His son Jake was killed in a car accident in 2009, when he was 19.

“Whenever I pass through Hyde Park, I see his truck on its side,” Hawkes said.

Jake was texting when the accident happened, Hawkes said. By the time he looked up, the car in front of him had stopped at a red light. Rather than rear-end the vehicle at high speed, Jake passed them, running the red light. He was hit by an oncoming vehicle, causing his truck to roll. Jake wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle.

“It didn’t even scratch the other guy’s bumper,” Hawkes said. “Jake probably would have walked away, had he been wearing a seat belt.”

Hawkes decided to tell Jake’s story, even though it can be difficult, to help prevent others from having to go through what he and his family have. In addition to sharing his message in the community, Hawkes started the Click-It Club at North Park Elementary to teach students to wear their seat belts. After hearing Jake’s story, one student told Hawkes something that has stayed with him ever since.

“He asked me, ‘Did it make you sad when Jake got killed?’” Hawkes remembered. “I said ‘yes, it broke my heart.’ And he told me, ‘I’ll wear my seat belt so you’ll never have to be sad about me.’”

For Hawkes, the idea of having such an impact on even one student is enough to motivate him to continue. Hawkes said the memorial is a powerful way of sharing the message.

“All the faces are there,” Hawkes said. “All those 120 kids. They all have a story.”

The memorial will be at Green Canyon for the rest of April, Hawkes said. In May, he hopes to bring it to Sky View, where Jake went to school. Eventually, he plans to display it at every high school in the valley.


Information from: The Herald Journal, http://www.hjnews.com

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