Cole Russell '20 had a deep personal connection to most of the hundreds of people in attendance at the 35th annual MADD Candlelight Vigil of Hope and Remembrance on Thursday night (Dec. 5).
For many in the audience at Mission Hill Church in Temple Terrace, it was a sibling, parent, spouse, or child whose life had been tragically ended by a drunk or impaired driver. For Russell, it was a grandmother he would never meet. Russell has lived the tragedy through his mother, Lynette Russell.
With his mom and Jesuit classmates from the SADD Club there in support, Russell gave a special presentation.
"18 years before I was born, my grandmother was killed by an underaged drunk driver," Russell said. "My mother was only 13 at the time and about to go into high school. Losing a loved one this way is hard for anyone but losing your mom as a teenager can be devastating.
"I believe knowledge is power and that teens usually want to do what is right. I believe we can to teach future generations early enough to where they don't get involved in drugs or alcohol unlike the young man that killed my grandmother. Tonight, I light this candle for her, my grandmother, Josie DiStefano Palomino, and all the youth injured and killed in impaired driving crashes and for a safe future for all people on our highways."
(See below the full transcript of Russell's presentation.)
For many years, Jesuit's chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions has supported the vigil, which is sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2018 there were 10,511 deaths from drunk-driving crashes in the United States. Every day, almost 30 people in the U.S. die in drunk-driving crashes — one person every 48 minutes. These deaths have fallen by a third in the last three decades despite still claiming more than 10,000 lives a year.
Linda Unfried, the sister of Cole Russell's grandmother and founder of the West Central Florida MADD Chapter, as well as others impacted by DUI-related crashes, shared stories of their losses to help survivors with their grief and offer comfort.
The vigil featured many other moving occasions, including the Walk of Memories. Just outside the church, dozens of law enforcement personnel stood adjacent to their illuminated vehicles, which were aligned side by side to create a glowing pathway. Hundreds of participants walked the pathway, some holding a candle in honor of the memory of the deceased.
The participation of local law enforcement from multiple agencies, including Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, P '22, lent a powerful presence to the event. It was following the Walk of Memories, after everyone returned inside the church, that Russell spoke. Then came another impactful moment, the Lighting of the Candles, as the names of the deceased were announced by a loved one or supporter, who lit a candle in their memory.
The 27 SADD Club members who, along with club moderator Lauren Maguire, attended the vigil were: club officers Joseph Lopez '21, Anthony Rodriguez '20, Cole Russell '20, and Sebastian Solano '20; and Javier Alvarez '22, Ryan Curtis '21, Dominic DeCarlo '21, Ryan Feocco '21, Ryan Finster '22, Luke Franklin '21, Josh Gargula '21, Max Gonzalez '21, Brayden Hanrahan '21, Jason Heiman '21, Will Iler '22, Josiah Jenkins '22, Charlie Kennedy '21, Ben Leavy '21, Dalton McKeon '21, Tommy Meyer '22, Kai Ravenna '21, Mac Revelle '21, Nick Rodriguez '21, A.J. Romer '20, Michael Rooth '21, Jake Spoto '21, and Luke Spoto '21.
Below is a photo slideshow from Thursday's vigil, and below that is a transcript of Russell's presentation:
Cole Russell '20 - MADD Candlelight Vigil presentation - Dec. 5, 2019
Hello, my name is Cole Russell. I turned 18 a couple months ago and I am senior at Jesuit High School. This woman right here is my grandmother, Josie DiStefano Palomino, whom I never got to meet. 18 years before I was born, she was killed by an underaged drunk driver. My mother was only 13 at the time and about to go into high school. Losing a loved one this way is hard for anyone but losing your mom as a teenager can be devastating. She struggled over the years and even found it hard to be around her aunt Linda because she reminded her too much of her mom. My mom's pain and grief still exists today and she finds it difficult to attend events like these so I am glad she is here tonight.
Going into high school I knew I wanted to join a few clubs so it could look good on my resumé, but quickly realized I would get more out of the service than I originally believed. Jesuit's mantra is "Men for Others" and focuses on community service, and I have learned the importance of this through my commitment to SADD, which stands for Students Against Destructive Decisions. When I first learned about this club freshman year, I wanted to participate because of everything my mom went through when she was my age. I was compelled to help prevent others from making bad choices and support those who have suffered these tragedies. Over the past few years, I have become passionate about stopping unnecessary deaths due to drugs, alcohol, and car crashes.
Teen drivers are more likely to be in accidents than the average adult because they are usually less experienced and tend to do riskier things. Most kids my age think they are invincible, but we all know that this is not true.
• Car crashes are the number 1 killer of teens in America, with 60% of them being impaired.
• 8 teens every day are in DUI crashes and almost 7500 were killed or seriously injured in 2015.
• Teen fatalities make up one-fifth of all alcohol-related crashes but licensed teens only make up 6% of overall drivers.
• Also crashes that involve alcohol peak between 9 pm and 6 am. And obviously, they are higher on weekends than weekdays.
• And for the males in the crowd, you are almost twice as likely as females to drive under the influence.
That is exactly what happened to my grandmother. She was coming home late on a Friday night, one day after her 41st birthday and after celebrating her parents 55th wedding anniversary. A drunk 17-year-old boy hit and killed her on impact. It was determined that he was an alcoholic and began drinking at or before the age of 13 which is middle school age. Because of my grandmother's death and this young man's tragic life story, my great Aunt Linda helped start MADD in Hillsborough County 35 years ago and has recently realized her dream to educate youth younger than high school on the perils of underaged drinking. Josie's Pledge educates middle school-aged kids on destructive decisions and asks they sign a pledge that they won't drink until they are 21. This program is currently active in middle schools throughout Hillsborough County and she is trying to make it state-wide. This is so important in eliminating underage drinking because high school is simply too late.
I believe knowledge is power and that teens usually want to do what is right. I believe we can to teach future generations early enough to where they don't get involved in drugs or alcohol unlike the young man that killed my grandmother. Tonight, I light this candle for her, my grandmother, Josie DiStefano Palomino, and all the youth injured and killed in impaired driving crashes and for a safe future for all people on our highways.