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A vigil for hope

May 8, 2014

From left to right: Vincent Ruggieri, Kayla Pelletier, Julia Gershkoff, and Alex Gershkoff.

NORTH KINGSTOWN—On Nov. 13, 2013, Nicholas Gershkoff was killed in a drunk driving incident. On Feb. 19, 2012, Michael Ruggieri was killed in a drunk driving incident. This past Friday evening, the families and friends of both gathered at North Kingstown Town Beach to present the realities of how drunk driving devastates the lives of many, but to also bring hope to those who have lost their loved ones.

“It is always in your mind, always there, that you can’t talk to your older brother anymore,” Alex Gershkoff said in a message to the audience. “I wish I could go back and tell him, ‘Nicholas, get out of the car, you are going to die,’ and I can’t.”

“I had never seen my dad cry, and he turned to me and said ‘Michael is dead,’” said Vincent Ruggieri, Michael’s brother. “Honestly, in that moment I didn’t believe it. I walked into Michael’s room and just thought about what I was going to do.”

The candlelight vigil was organized by North Kingstown High School students Julia Gershkoff and Kayla Pelletier, who spoke first-hand about the impact which has been made on their lives after losing a brother and a friend to drunk driving. More than 100 people attended.

“For me, I have both seen and felt the impact, as my boyfriend [Vincent Ruggieri] lost his brother in a car accident,” said Pelletier. “Just seeing the hurt and feeling the pain, I knew that something had to be done.”

Pelletier, as part of her senior project, has made bracelets which read, “Stay alive, Save Lives, Don’t Drink and Drive,” in order to raise funds for the North Kingstown Prevention Coalition [NKPC] to develop programs educating students about the dangers of drunk driving.

“The NKPC reached out to me and asked if I could help them do this vigil, and I just thought it was a great opportunity to show the community as a whole how much this affects people and why we need to make a change.”

North Kingstown Police Chief Thomas Mulligan also related his experience as an officer having to arrive at the scene of accidents which are the result of drunk driving, and the tragedy that loved ones have been lost which he must relay to family members.

“We are who we are for the choices we make,” said Mulligan. “I can’t tell you the number of homes I have visited. To look at a family and tell them that their son or daughter has been killed in an auto accident, it rips a family apart.”

“I ask those present [to] make a promise to your son, daughter, brother, whoever, that if they’re in that condition, to do not get into a vehicle,” he added. “Make that face-to-face promise. I would hope that would save a life.”

Gershkoff also presented a video, now on YouTube, which she created for her senior project. She, her brother Alex, and Vincent all related the experience of learning that a loved one was lost in a drunk driving incident.

“I started editing the film, which was a long and draining process,” said Gershkoff. “It was also very difficult to weed out what should be said and shouldn’t be said, what is too harsh for people to take in and what is the reality that is shareable.”

Julia, Alex and Vincent speak about the talent and hope which their families had for Nicholas and Michael, and how that potential was snuffed out by riding in vehicles driven by friends who were intoxicated.

“We were so proud of [Nicholas] when he graduated second in his class at New England Tech,” Alex said in the video. “Nick was always a smart kid, pursuing his bachelor’s in marine technology. We had all this hope for him, and in one minute, it was all crushed, gone.”

The video’s message, as well as that behind the bracelets, has been powerful, said Gershkoff, who has been surprised by the response of her fellow classmates.

“I know after the video, students have come up to me and Vincent, thanking us for it, so I think it is really hitting people,” said Pelletier.

“Kayla’s bracelets have become a huge trend at our school and people want to support the cause, which I did not expect at all,” said Gershkoff. “I have been to assemblies where it is a really big subject, but people don’t really listen.”

“When I showed my video, at the end of my speech, I said I hope you really respect what you see, and there was not a sound in the room. People really took it seriously.”

Superintendent of Schools Philip Auger, who played The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” in closing at the vigil, said that he was proud North Kingstown students were taking to Julia and Kayla’s message, but cautioned that saying no to drunk driving is more than making a pledge or attending a vigil alone.

“These kids get it, they have lived through it,” said Auger on Friday. “It is really heart-warming to see them addressing the issue in such a good way.”

“You hope that [students] are going to make good decision because there is so much pressure out there not to,” he continued. “It is easy on a night like tonight to be mindful of that, but it is another thing altogether to take it with you and live that way. I am really gratified that these kids are taking it so seriously, and I believe they understand that this extends past tonight.”

Gershkoff, who will major in vocal performance at Ithaca College this fall, added that she continues to receive emails from friends and strangers about the video, telling her that their message is raw and making an impact, just as both she and Pelletier hope the vigil has done.

“We want people to know that drinking and driving has become an epidemic, but one that is 100 percent preventable,” said Pelletier. “I hope that showing something that someone in their class has felt so real, that they will start understanding now. We are all in this together.”

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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