WAKEFIELD — The faces — young and old, male and female — that were projected onto the screen demonstrated in vivid detail just how wide an impact impaired driving has on society.
Over the last 40 years, people who have died from drunk driving accidents in Rhode Island have included infants and 95-year-old grandparents. High school kids, college students, young professionals and middle-aged parents have also been killed.
“May we never forget the victims and continue to celebrate their lives,” said Melissa Silva, a Coventry resident whose mother, Carol Isacco, was killed by a drunk driver on June 10, 2017.
Silva was recognized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Rhode Island during its 36th annual candlelight vigil, which was hosted by The Prout School on Dec. 6. This year’s vigil was the 15th year that a Rhode Island high school had hosted the event.
Prout students performed music, held candles and read poetry to show solidarity with the relatives and loved ones of people who have been killed and seriously injured by impaired drivers over the years.
“We will still cry. We will always cry. But with loving reflection, more than hopeless longing,” said Prout student Jake Moniz, who read the poem, “How We Survive,” by Mark Rickerby.
The vigil included a slideshow with the names and faces of Rhode Islanders who have been lost to impaired driving over the years. Some of their relatives mustered the strength to approach a microphone and say a few words to honor their memory.
“The grief doesn’t have an end. I feel these are the only people who can understand that,” said Paula Whitford, a South Kingstown resident whose son, Lorenzo Smith, who was one of two people who died in January while riding in a vehicle driven by a woman who was reportedly intoxicated. Smith was 33.
“It was tough for me to be here tonight,” said Whitford, who was candid in describing the emotional turmoil her son’s tragic death has had on her and her family.
“It’s been very challenging on my mental health,” Whitford said. “From one day to the next, I don’t know if I’m going to be a calm person or a raging person… I don’t even know who I am anymore. I’m trying to find myself and I’m just lost in grief.”
Rhode Island State Police troopers often have to notify parents, spouses and loved ones about those tragedies, sometimes during early-morning home visits.
“That’s why we’re here today to support MADD and all of you in your efforts to make it stop,” said Rhode Island State Police Col. Ann C. Assumpico, the superintendent of the State Police and director of Public Safety.
Assumpico told those who gathered in the Prout auditorium that the Rhode Island State Police “will be here and everywhere, continuing to tell people to not drive and drink.”
“We will continue making DUI arrests,” Assumpico said. “We will continue to pass new laws with tougher penalties because this has to stop.”
On Dec. 19, Silva said her mother would have turned 71. Though her life was tragically ended, Silva said she was still grateful that she got to share 40 years of life with her mother. She has been collecting pet food and supplies to donate to an area animal shelter in her mother’s memory.
“It is my mission to spread awareness anyway I can by donating to various organizations,” Silva said. “Together we can make a difference. May we never forget the victims and continue to celebrate their lives.”
Francie Mantak, a victim services specialist with MADD Rhode Island, echoed other survivors in saying that “nothing can compare in intensity and pain” to losing someone to a drunk or impaired driver.
“It so thoroughly changes you as a person,” said Mantak, who read a letter from one local resident who wrote that she could not attend the vigil at Prout because it took too much out of her emotionally.
“Everyone grieves in their own way,” Mantak said, also emphasizing the importance of showing compassion for one another in such difficult circumstances.
“Small gestures remind us how important it is to connect to one another, what it could mean to person in that moment,” Mantak said. “No gesture is too small.”
Susan Pullyblank, the girls lacrosse coach at Prout, attended the vigil with several of her student-athletes and held a candle. She recalled a 13-year-old classmate of hers who was killed 35 years ago after being struck by a vehicle driven by a high school senior who had just finished drinking a six-pack of beer.
“It impacted us. We were in the 8th grade, and it was February vacation,” said Pullyblank, who often tells her own children that “nothing good happens after 10 p.m.”
Said Pullyblank, “I can’t even imagine being a trooper, going to those homes and having to tell someone that at 3 a.m. It’s a shame. It’s sad.”