By Errol Castens
OXFORD – Tish Stephens knows what a difference one bad choice can make.
On July 31, 2011, the Chattanooga resident, college graduate and mother of two went to a housewarming party for a co-worker and had a couple of drinks. From there, she went to a bar with a friend and downed several more before driving across Chickamauga Dam in the wrong lanes of four-lane Highway 153.
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said, adding that she was obviously doing the wrong thing. “I take complete responsibility for my decision.”
Kevin Yates’ mother, Tiki Finlayson, noted that her son’s death forever links her and Stephens. “We’re both in a life sentence together.”
The two women were among several speakers Friday at Lafayette High School as an outreach of IAM1N3, the organization that Finlayson and her surviving son, Derek Yates, co-founded. While the name reflects that one in three Americans will be impacted by drunk driving, the organization also warns of other forms of impaired or distracted driving.
One emphasis of Friday’s program was how drunk driving affects not only the drunk driver and his or her direct victims, but everyone they love.
Stephens’ sons have been impacted by her time in hospital, at-home recovery and prison, as well as her guilt and the loss of her health care career.
Finlayson described Kevin as smart, funny, affectionate, talented, and excited about his budding career as an artist and programmer. She told of stroking his hair, which he was growing out to give to Locks of Love, only to find it matted with glass and blood. She told of the moment she understood he was gone and her mixed emotions in allowing Kevin’s organs to be removed for transplant, as he wished.
“Life is never the same,” she said in utter understatement.
Crystal Richards, Finlayson’s sister, added, “When we buried Kevin, we lost a piece of us.”
A most graphic part of IAM1N3’s presentation was viewing the smashed minivan in which Kevin was driving home from work when Stephens hit him.
“I’ve got a whole different perspective,” LHS junior Charlie Johnson said afterward. “I’m going to do my best to stay safe – not to drink and drive or text and drive.”
One surprise in Friday’s IAM1N3 program was a personal testimony on organ donation. Melvin Ellis, a Memphis resident and Batesville pastor, received Kevin’s heart.
“You don’t want to put a family through what this family has endured,” Ellis told students. “But I’m here because a six-foot-five human being who loved Batman chose to be an organ donor.”