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For Dr. Jorge Verea, an internist who has dealt with countless ailments and viruses, there is one epidemic that gnaws at him day and night.
It is an epidemic that claims nearly 3,000 lives a year, and is the leading cause of death among teens aged 16-19.
It killed his daughter, Rebeka, in 2005. That's when the North Jersey teen rode in the car of a friend who, like so many teens, pressed on the gas pedal, sending the speedometer soaring far beyond the speed limit. She was 18.
“Every day car accidents take the lives of about 16 teenagers,” said Verea, a man who concedes to having been oblivious to the issue before it steam-rolled into his life. “That’s something we need to pay attention to as a community.”
So he and his wife, interior designer Lourdes Verea, run a foundation that bears Rebeka's name, and travel tirelessly around the state, as well as places like Florida and Mexico, to make young people mindful of the fact that a bad decision, or reckless behavior behind the wheel, can change -- or end -- their lives.
The flagship event of the Rebeka Verea Foundation is an annual symposium, held on April 24 – Rebeka’s birthday – and which now draws close to 1,000 people, most of them high school students from around New Jersey.
It is, by all accounts, an emotional, transfixing experience – one that combines lessons about statistics of lives lost and people injured in crashes with faces and personal stories behind those numbers.
“We don’t want any more families to go through the pain, each and every day, that we go through," Lourdes Verea said.
When Tragedy Struck
The late June day in 2005 started gloriously.
The younger of the Verea’s two daughters, Rebeka, graduated from Cliffside Park High School. It was one chapter closed, and another beginning.
In Rebeka's eyes, and her parents', this is how it was supposed to be: Post-secondary school to be a nurse or medical assistant, then work with her father, a respected internist in New Jersey, and her big sister, who was on her way to being an anesthesiologist.
“I’m going out to pick up a friend with Alexis, we’ll be right back,” Rebeka told her parents before she left a graduation celebration at the family home at about 8 p.m.
Then came the midnight knock at the door.
When Jorge Verea opened it, he saw more than a dozen people, most of them police, standing there, looking at him.
“Are you Dr. Verea?” they asked.
“There’s been a car accident. Rebeka didn’t make it.”
As they went through the unfathomable pain of laying their daughter to rest, they learned the details of what killed her.
The friend, Alexis Torres, who drove the car she rode in, had borrowed an uncle’s high-powered Mercedes Benz. He was apparently going too fast to brake when the tractor-trailer in front of them made a sudden left turn.
“He took her life,” Verea said, with a steady gaze, filled with hurt. “Two point five seconds, that is how long Rebeka lived after impact. She died of her injuries. They were so bad, we could not have an open casket.”
Speed, it was determined, was a key factor in the crash. Toxicology tests came back negative.
Torres, who was in a coma for two weeks after the accident, was acquitted of vehicular homicide in 2006. His lawyer blamed the truck driver on the accident, claiming he made an illegal turn without signaling.
After Death, The Birth Of A Mission
A tragedy sometimes brings an inexplicable strength. In Jorge and Lourdes Verea, it was a strength rooted in refusing to have Rebeka’s death as the last chapter of her life.
They decided to take her death, and the lessons underlying it, to create chapters they’d never envisioned before destiny changed the narrative.
Jorge Verea learned about how car crashes were the leading cause of death for teenagers like Rebeka. This, the doctor realized, was an epidemic that needed to be fought, not unlike any other medical emergency that threatens lives on a daily basis.
Just days after Rebeka’s death, Verea and his wife knew they had to do something to shine a bright light on the epidemic that had struck their home and that was killing young people around the country.
They started the Rebeka Verea Foundation, whose mission is to educate teenagers and their parents about the “weapon that is in your hands when you’re behind a steering wheel,” Verea said.
The program has grown in scope, popularity and influence in its nine years.
The Vereas visit schools, sponsor Project Graduation programs, and are working with New Jersey legislators on measures that would reduce teenage driving accidents. One such measure, Verea said, would call for parents and prospective teen drivers to attend a class, or classes, on the importance of safe driving and the consequences – to themselves and others – of being reckless or distracted.
Police departments and town officials are also embracing the foundation’s mission.
West New York, N.J., named a street after Rebeka. Cliffside Park has declared April 24 Rebeka Verea Day. In 2010, West New York police dedicated a Dodge Charger they called “Stealth Vehicle 17,” used for radar and DUI enforcement, to Rebeka. The car has her image on it.
At the dedication, the West New York mayor praised the Vereas for "putting their personal pain aside to help young people."
The Annual Symposium, Statistics And Real-Life Stories
The annual symposium has become one of the most respected of its kind in New Jersey, and some even say in the nation.
“I’ve been around many programs, national programs, and this foundation’s is the one I’ve been touched by the most,” said Violet Marrero, Manager of Special Projects at the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety. “They bring personal stories to teens, they remind them that they’re loved, and there are people who are left behind with the aftermath of the crash. They show them that the decision they make can be the difference between life and death.”
“But they also educate,” Marrero said. “They do it in such a positive way, with the message ‘Say yes to life.’ They show that you can make a different choice, and what choices you actually have.”
At the symposium, the Vereas speak about Rebeka, who she was, the future she – like many of the teens in the audience – didn’t doubt for a minute she’d get to live. She would have been 27 on Thursday.
Others who speak are people like Gabe Hurley, who was disfigured and confined to a wheelchair when a careless driver rammed his car into his, and there is Andrea Maher, who speaks about her son Matthew, an honors student and star athlete who drove drunk one night and killed a man. Matthew, she tells them, now sits in jail.
"After this tragedy," said Matthew Maher in a letter sent to Fox News Latino, "instead of being buried by anger, remorse, and sorrow the Verea family chose to take their tragic loss and use it for a greater purpose--to save lives in honor of Rebeka’s life."
Maher said he was moved by the ability of the Vereas to welcome his parents into their work to reach out to young people by making sure they hear both from those who have been physically hurt or lost a loved one because of someone's careless action, and hear from those who caused the devastation.
"I will always be grateful for how this family reached out and made my parents feel accepted and a part of their mission to reach young people with their positive prevention message," Maher said. "They received my family like we were a part of their family exhibiting empathy, compassion, and understanding."
Maher said their work is priceless, delivering a message he understood only after the tragedy he was part of.
"I thoughtlessly made the irresponsible decision to drink and drive on the night of March 7, 2009, which resulted in the death of Mr. Hort. Kap," he said. "I am currently serving a five-and-a-half-year sentence, which pales to the life sentence I feel in my heart for being the cause of such an egregious act. I will forever live with that sadness and remorse."
At the annual symposium, the audience also hears from hospital trauma center workers, who describe the accident victims they’ve treated, and tried to save, and the last words they uttered.
But there is hope, too.
That is why the logo of the foundation is a rainbow. It goes back, Jorge Verea said, to a rainbow that appeared on the day of Rebeka’s funeral, after a day of torrential rain.
“The priest who spoke at the funeral said after a storm there is light,” he recalled. “That’s not really what we were ready to hear, we were steeped in darkness.”
Rebeka’s mother said: “It is the worst thing. There is nothing worse in life than to lose your child like this.”
But there was a rainbow that day, too, and the Vereas took it as a sign from Rebeka, there must be a light – something positive – after the storm, after her violent death.
“It would be this, the foundation, the message to other teenagers to say yes to life,” Lourdes Verea said.
Alexis Torres, who was 19 at the time of the accident, has said he is still haunted over Rebeka’s death and regrets what happened. But he and his parents have denied he was speeding, insisting that while the crash was a terrible tragedy what happened was not his fault.
"I don't ever believe it's going to be over because I'm going to have to live with the fact that she's not here," Torres told The Record of Bergen County five years ago. “"Rebeka and I always said we would take care of each other, so I have to keep going for her, but it truly kills me when I think about everything that happened."
Jorge Verea said he had liked Torres, seeing him as one of those few teenagers he felt comfortable letting his daughter hanging out with, and driving around. But, he said, he later learned that Torres liked to speed.
“This is why,” he said. “we now stress that parents must speak with their children, about being responsible behind the wheel, and making the right choice about who they get into a car with.”