Kathy Hernandez: Beauty From Ashes
There are moments in time that change our lives forever. Decisions made, split-second choice that make the day one in which we wish time could be reversed and horrible events prevented. No doubt this is the case for one Vidor woman.
Kathy Richard Hernandez has a moment in her past which not only changed her life forever, it has been a shadow over her life every day since. That moment came on April 29, 2007. On this day, in the early morning hours, her youngest daughter, Casey Dawn Hastings, lost her life on a dark highway in Jefferson County.
Hers is a story that is excruciating to tell and difficult to hear. It is also a fact that many things in life that are difficult to tell are necessary to hear. For Casey’s tragic story is not just her mother’s to tell. It pain and anguish has been shared by many.
Casey was a brilliant spot of light in the lives of all that knew her. Her face always carried a smile and her mood always up beat. Though her passion was cheerleading, she excelled academically as well as athletically lettering in cross-county her freshman year and graduating Magna Cum Laude from Bridge City High in 2006. With her sights set on Forensic Psychology, she was finishing her second semester at Lamar University. During this same time she was chosen to be a cheerleader for the Southeast Texas Arena semi-pro football team the Demons. She was nineteen.
April 28 during a media type event to introduce the new team members and cheerleaders, Casey consumed an unknown amount of alcohol from an unknown source. She then made the decision to get behind the wheel of her Mustang and drive. She didn’t arrive at her unknown destination but drove into oncoming traffic causing a head-on collision with another teen.
“Casey always made such good decisions,” Kathy said. “To this day I have a hard time understanding why. But it was her choice to drink and drive that caused the accident. It’s not easy to say, a mother feels guilty about what their child does even when they are adults.”
Kathy looks down, thinking thoughts that have traveled to and from her mind daily for the past four years. Their frequency doesn’t alleviate the hurt Casey’s death has caused her family, friends and Dani Simien. Casey and Dani are now inextricably linked forever. Dani was the driver of the vehicle Casey hit head on that horrible night. The same moment in time that changed Kathy’s life forever is the exact moment in which he entered his personal nightmare.
The result of Casey’s decision to drink and drive left Dani paralyzed from the waist down. Casey paid the ultimate sacrifice for her decision and Dani continues to pay for her choice with multiple surgeries, loss of dreams and goals, plans for the future, potential income and youth.
Being seventeen, he had just finished his evening at prom by dropping off his date and heading home. When lives collide, as his and Casey’s did on that morning at 1:20, no one who is connected to either goes untouched. Both were life flighted to a local hospital, both were in critical condition, both comatose.
As Kathy held her daughters hand at the hospital, starring, hoping, relentlessly for any sign of life from her, she had trouble grasping what the doctors were trying to tell her. There were no signs of brain activity.
“Your daughter, Casey, will probably go to heaven today,” the doctor told her, then she understood.
Casey wasn’t going to open her eyes, smile her bright smile, cheer on the sidelines, get married, and have children.
“Parents aren’t supposed to bury their children,” she says.
There are no truer words and no way to convey the feelings of losing one.
As much as this story is about loss, it is today more about life. It is about good coming out of tragedy, purpose coming out of loss, hope coming out of hopelessness.
“Casey’s boyfriend’s mother was a nurse and an advocate for organ donation,” Kathy said. “She was there with me the whole time and talked to me about it.”
The decision to donate a loved one’s organs comes at the most painful point of an impossible situation. To say it is difficult is an understatement.
Still, the choice to donate Casey’s organs was just the first of many Kathy and her husband, Tony would make together.
They buried their daughter a day before Kathy’s birthday and a week before Mother’s Day. They also knew a part of Casey would live on saving six lives and giving one person the gift of sight. But there needed to be more good come out of what took the life of there daughter and that of her victim, Dani.
“I thought, I’ve got to turn this around and cause something good to come out of this,” Kathy said.
She became an outspoken advocate for the Southwest Transplant alliance, where she met and became friends with one of the recipients of Casey’s organs.
Carol Ann Chamel, breaths in life with Casey’s left lung.
Kathy also met George Jones; a young father who received Casey’s left kidney and pancreas, as well as Ida whose life as a grandmother of 22 now beats with the rhythm of Casey’s heart. Could there be more she could do.
For Kathy, M.A.D.D. became another answer she dove into a spokes person position for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Since its inception, teen deaths from drunk driving have dropped 44 percent. Their use of spokespeople who have personally been affected by a drunk driver’s decision to get behind the wheel is greatly credited for this.
For Kathy, every speaking opportunity is one more step to healing, another leap to saving others from her agony. Hers is a voice of experience in an arena where no one wants to play. It is also a way to help young people and old understand there is no typical drunk driver.
“I don’t know why but I always thought of drunk drivers as an older man,” she said, “not a beautiful, young, healthy, smart young girl. Never my daughter!”
Her words reflect the thoughts of most people. She doesn’t excuse her daughter’s decision but doesn’t claim to understand it. Her administering of Casey’s story is a warning, it’s a wake up call. She tell the groups with which she speaks, “I would prefer you not drink at all, but if you are going to, never drink and drive!”
Recently the power of their story has magnified its impact. In February, Kathy and Dani Simien met for the first time. He has undergone thirteen surgeries to date, overcome suicide attempts, learned to live in a wheelchair and not dream of becoming a firefighter. He has also forgiven.
“He told me, he doesn’t hate Casey or hate me,” she said. “We sat and talked for hours.”
Their bond is one both can say they wish they didn’t have, both have decided to make a difference.
Now instead of saving lives of those in burning buildings, he has teamed up with Kathy to speak at church youth groups, community programs, even school organized events against drunk driving called Shattered Dreams. They speak to Victim Impact groups that consist of DUI offenders fulfilling requirements of the judgments.
Their stories, placed together on the roster has the effect of watching the crash that took over their lives. They are real people living a true story that Hollywood would only dare to write. They are examples, they are teachers, preachers and eye openers.
Kathy speaks first, she then introduces the next ‘speaker’ ending her sentence with, “my daughter’s victim, Dani Simien.” Their profound impact is saving lives. It is changing the face of drunk driving offenders and victims and loved ones. It’s not easy, it is necessary. They have teamed up to help M.A.D.D. in another critical arena.
As with all volunteer groups fund raising is critical.
“M.A.D.D. is not only about prevention, it is also about helping survivors survive,” Kathy said. “Some people don’t have funds to bury their loved ones, or pay bills the death of a parents has caused to be past due because of loss of income.”
The local M.A.D.D. covers a large area of Texas. They are essential to the education of our communities, adults and young alike. Some of their supporting facts are:
• Last year, 10,839 people died in drunk-driving crashes – one every 50 minutes.
• Every minute, one person is injured from an alcohol-related crash.
• One in three people will be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetime.
• MADD serves a victim or survivor of drunk driving every 10 minutes.
• Teen alcohol use kills about 6000 people each year, more than all illegal drugs combined.
• Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, and one out of three of those is alcohol related.
In light of these statistics the funding to educate is critical. One of the events organized to add to their coffers are the “Walk Like M.A.D.D.” events.
The local “Walk Like M.A.D.D.” is slated for Sept. 24.
It is critical to get sponsors for it from the private as well as the corporate sectors.
“We need walkers, but we also just need sponsors,” she said. “People can join an existing team or start their own. We have media teams, law enforcement teams, even virtual walkers.”
Currently Kathy’s team consists of three members but she is looking for more. Casey Dawn & Dani – Making a Difference is their title and they truly are. She wants to do more, to multiply what has been started to make this situation mean something. To cause her daughter’s death and injury of Dani, to stand for something.
“You can join online. You can donate or become a walker or a team member. Its about awareness and funds.”
This year’s walk in September will be in Lumberton. All the information is to be found on www.MADD.org.
She is hoping to generate thousands of dollars in sponsorships and team members to prevent any other person from experiencing a moment in their time that changes life forever.
Drinking is an impairment of the senses, maybe that is why it is so senseless. The evening Casey got behind the wheel she didn’t maliciously choose to endanger herself or others. It is a story as old as time. Impaired judgment is just that. But we can all, as Kathy Richard Hernandez’ team name suggests, make a difference.
Choose to add you support to the walk, add your company’s products to their vendors area, or the grab bags they hand out, decide not to drink, get a designated driver, be a friend who is true and faithful to not let a friend drive under the influence of any mind altering substance, save the lives of children, mothers and sons. Arrive alive.
For additional information on becoming a team member or sponsor, to have Kathy and Dani speak at your church, youth group, school or any other event contact her. She is making a difference for our world. Out of her tragedy she is bringing new life. Hers is a necessary purpose. Emails are simple hers is firstname.lastname@example.org.