Jamie McWilliams is very matter-of-fact when she speaks to teenagers.
“I always start off by asking, ‘How many of you have a brother or sister?” she said. “Now close your eyes and imagine if you lost them, if you never saw them again.’ And then the tears flow, and they understand. It's turning my story into what could be their story if they don't consider what is going on with them.”
The Ocoee mom is on a crusade to share her son’s story to as many teenagers as possible so other parents don’t suffer as she has for 13 years. Justin’s death has also greatly impacted his younger sister, Ashley, who shared a Jan. 26 birthday with him.
On April 7, 2002, Justin McWilliams, 20, a baseball standout and graduate of West Orange High School, was struck and killed by a vehicle while at a party in a Winter Garden pasture. There was an altercation in the field, and an 18-year-old driver ran over Justin and left the scene, Jamie McWilliams said.
The driver was charged, but these charges were dismissed because of a “legal loophole” — State Uniform Traffic Rules didn't apply to private property at the time of Justin's death.
So McWilliams set out to change this. After two years of lobbying Florida lawmakers, she witnessed then-Gov. Jeb Bush sign the Justin McWilliams Justice for Justin Act into law, effective Oct. 1, 2006.
It was a bittersweet victory for McWilliams — but the tragedy and the aftermath of it all gave her a new purpose: to share her family’s story with as many teenagers as possible. In 2009, McWilliams started a nonprofit, Parents Encouraging Confident Choices Inc., which strives “to educate, communicate and share information and life experiences with our youth and their families regarding the importance of the choices they make and the impact of those choices on the lives of those that love them.”
A personal choice
McWilliams wanted her first speaking engagement to take place at her son’s alma mater. She presented to HOPE/physical education classes and Freshmen for Success throughout the day but also has gone before an auditorium full of teenagers.
She is not paid to speak, and she takes vacation time to visit the schools that invite her. Besides Central Florida schools, she has given talks at local youth events, health fairs and the Florida Highway Patrol; and she has traveled to North Carolina and New Jersey. An estimated 23,000 students ages 10 to 18 have heard her story. High school seniors were the target audience in the beginning, but now McWilliams speaks to middle-schoolers, too.
She talks about the domino effect of poor choices. She tells teens to be the example, not the statistic. She lets them know about the 2-year-old and 67-year-old who can see because Justin’s corneas were donated, as well as the people who received his bone, skin and tissue.
She shares the loving side, the sweet side of Justin, but she tells the other side, too.
“I don’t want to be the person who screamed, ‘My child is perfect,’” McWilliams said. “Justin was 20 years old; he was expected to make mistakes. He was drinking. The legal law is 21. It doesn’t say 21 except for Justin. … I always owned his choice.”
Good Neighbor grant
A representative from State Farm Insurance Company contacted McWilliams in April after learning about her nonprofit, inviting her to apply for Good Neighbor Citizenship Grant. She filled it out but didn’t hear anything for months. And then a check for $7,500 appeared in the mailbox.
This money will allow the 54-year-old mother to create brochures and continue her work with teens, promoting open communications with their families and friends and encouraging peer accountability. She promotes the insurance company’s Drive 2N2 (two hands on the wheel, two eyes on the road) campaign, and she makes sure students are aware of the anonymous speakouthotline.org, which is similar to a Crimeline for students.
“This is more about them than about us,” McWilliams said. “These kids know what’s going on with their friends before their parents do. It’s about peer responsibility. We’re not talking about getting someone in trouble. It’s about saving a life.”
She said she is amazed at the attentiveness, respect and compassion students show her when she is on their campuses.
“The comments kids write are amazing,” she said. “That’s why I do it. If I didn’t get that kind of feedback, I would shut it down completely.”
During the presentation, she gives out assorted goodies purchased with the grant money: rubber wristbands printed with “Be The Example” and the PECC website, lanyards and drawstring bags promoting the nonprofit. She also takes a banner that reads, “I will make the right choice in memory of…” and students are welcome to write on it. She then leaves it with the school.
“These kids write such lovely, heartfelt things, and I know that I impact them,” McWilliams said.
She keeps a stack of letters written by students, and she has even earned praise from parents, as well as John Linehan, an assistant principal at West Orange High, and Dr. Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of Orange County Public Schools.
“You don’t want your parents telling your story one day,” she says to students. “It impacts every aspect of your life every day. It affects every holiday, every milestone. Ashley has had her 16th birthday, her 21st birthday, without Justin.
“I tell kids, ‘His story could be your story. When you've lost a friend due to poor choice, you need to tell their story; you might help someone down the road.’”
For information about McWilliams and her mission, go to PECC.US.com. To contact her, call (407) 929-5864 or email [email protected].
To support the program, send a check or money order to Parents Encouraging Confident Choices Inc., 1583 E. Silver Star Road, Box 337, Ocoee, Florida 34761.
“It's just a tremendous journey,” McWilliams said. “It's my passion. It's my heart and soul. … If I can do something that will help other families not to go through what my family has gone through — I get so much peace from this.”