TEMPLE TERRACE — Family members and friends from throughout the county gathered in pew after pew at the mega First Baptist Church of Temple Terrace to pay tribute to their loved ones injured or killed by drunken drivers.
For some, the Dec. 5 event was their first experience at the annual candlelight vigil hosted by the Hillsborough County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Others have made the holiday season observance a priority for decades as this year marked its 30th anniversary.
Every year, new faces, including the dates of their injuries and/or deaths, are added to those who have gone before them on two continuously scrolling video screens mounted high above the altar for those in their presence to view.
One of the familiar faces to those who have attend in the past was that of Josie Palomino, 41, the sister of Linda Unfried, who founded the organization shortly after a drunken driver took her sibling’s life in 1983.
That same year, she organized a grassroots candlelight vigil on the steps of the county courthouse, an event that drew about 25 or 30 people and was the precursor to the chartering of MADD’s Hillsborough County chapter the following year.
“I wanted to learn how to help my family and other families that were falling apart,” she said.
In the years since, Unfried said the organization has touched the lives of the grieving family members of 1,472 people severely injured or killed by alcohol-impaired drivers.
“I can honestly say that the last 30 years have taken a lot of faith and it was that faith that led to meeting and marrying my husband, Carl,” she said.
Her faith and perseverance also led her to organize a 1985 bus trip to Tallahassee that she said played a role in raising Florida’s legal drinking age from 18 to 21; to the founding of a MADD chapter at Tampa Catholic High School in 1987 where her daughter was then a student; and in the years since to the formation of several other MADD groups in other high schools throughout the greater Tampa area.
The Rev. Paul Purvis, pastor of the First Baptist, spoke about the importance of hope in providing those who are grief-stricken a reason to move beyond their darkest days.
“Hope, not wishful thinking but the kind described in God’s word, gives us reason to look up, to persevere,” he said.
Guest speaker John Evans, the MADD national office victim services training manager, said the Temple Terrace candlelight vigil was his 200th such event during his tenure with MADD.
The circumstances behind why he’s been present at so many such events are different from most other attendees.
That’s because his life was spared after being struck and badly injured by a drunken driver while changing a flat tire on the shoulder of Interstate 4.
Despite having to endure multiple surgeries, he is grateful to be alive.
“I, like you all, light a candle in memory of those whose lives were lost,” Evans said. “Pat yourselves on the back that you’ve made it this far.”
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]