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home : news : news Sunday, May 29, 2016

8/31/2013 Email this articlePrint this article 
Sparks shares his consequences of underage drinking

Jennifer Reed Murrell

Justin Sparks sat quietly between his parents, waiting to be called to the podium as part of the Gateway ImpACT Coalition's program "Underage Drinking = Loss Beyond Measure."

It was Thursday. Aug. 22, and classes for Central and Northeast students were in full swing. The many teenagers who milled about the meeting room in Clinton's Church of the Open Door looked fresh-faced and carefree, joking with pals or staring at their smart phones. I could feel and see the contrast between them and Justin.

As he sat in a row that included other family members, I approached from behind and introduced myself as a neighbor. Little did I know, no interviews were being given to the press, but that wasn't my purpose for speaking to them.

I noted our connection by way of a dog we once had, "Pugsley." Years earlier, we had a polygamist pug who'd run away and hang out at the Sparks house under the pseudonym of "Larry." We shared a few nervous chuckles.

But I talked to them because I wanted Justin to know the July 23, 2011, accident and its horrific consequences bore little on our opinion of Justin. He always struck my family as a solid kid.

During his senior year, he and my daughter, Moira, were in the same 4-H Club, the Charlotte Junior Producers. We still believe he's that "solid kid;" he just bears a burden none of us would will upon our worst enemy.

That July 22, despite his decision to stay home, found Justin out drinking with friends. He'd waken the following morning in a hospital, unaware the two close friends with whom he'd been partying, Jed Rogis, 19, and Kristin Hanrahan, 18, were dead from injuries sustained in a one-car accident. Justin was the driver.

'I was not in the car alone'

Following a brief introduction on the night's topic, Justin shared how his choices have completely changed his life. "Having too much fun can get you into trouble," he warned.

As he began, Justin shared he wasn't trying to scare anyone, it was to save them the pain and anguish that will continue to plague him daily. "I don't want anyone else to go through this.

"I want you all to know the consequences of getting into a vehicle after drinking."

The jaded listener could shrug off his talk as part of his community service. Most of us cannot know how much courage it takes to stand before a room of family and peers, possibly family members and friends of Kristin and Jed, and talk of the night that would end two lives and irrevocably change his own. I don't believe anyone can say Justin's grieving heart was not reaching out to everyone in that room, begging them to hear him.

He shared having graduated high school the previous spring and enjoying that charmed summer between high school graduation and the start of college. Justin was to begin studies at Western Illinois University in August.

He told of the night of July 22 and the little he could remember, "After a long night of drinking, we were headed to another party," Justin said. He didn't remember getting in the car, let alone what caused the crash in which all three passengers were thrown from his vehicle.

He did not dwell so much on the accident, but what his life is like today. He was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide, operating a vehicle under the influence, is listed as a felon for the rest of his life, is serving five years of probation and hundreds of hours of community service, not to mention the restitution he must pay to the families of Jed and Kristin. But I'm certain it's the loss of his friends, Kristin and Jed, that weigh the heaviest.

"Nothing is as heartbreaking as hearing two friends have died."

Justin admits his life is vastly different, how he must consider every little action he takes. He stays home most days and has yet to regain the weight he lost after the accident.

This fall he'll attend Iowa State University.

'No one planned for this to happen'

Following Justin, his mother, Kelly, told of the nightmare from which she's yet to awaken. Shaking, she talked of her three children, two daughters and the youngest, Justin.

The night of July 22, 2011, found her and husband, Joe, camping in Mt. Carroll, Ill. She told how, at 4:18 a.m., her phone rang and she was told Justin had been in an accident, nothing of the fates of Jed and Kristin.

Word spread fast among the small communities of Charlotte and Goose Lake, which make up the Northeast School District. "Soon there were 20 or 30 kids in the hospital," Kelly said.

When she talked with Justin, he didn't know what had happened, and she and Joe were unsure how to tell their son he wasn't alone in the car. "We had to keep the TV off because it was all over the news."

Fearful one of the many friends gathered at the hospital would tell Justin, Kelly and Joe cleared the room and told him themselves.

"As a parent, you don't want any harm to come to your children," Kelly said, choking back tears. "No one planned for this to happen."

Justin was bed-ridden for more than a month due to injuries sustained to his leg and ankle. Only later would doctors discover his back was broken.

Offering a series of alternatives, Kelly shared rather than shopping for new school clothes, she searched for smaller sizes that would fit Justin's shrinking frame; rather than buying snacks for his college life, she was searching for any food that would entice her son to eat; rather than rushing to classes, Justin's calendar was full of appointments with doctors and lawyers.

Kelly said Justin went from being a kid without a care in the world, "to walking around with the weight of the world on his back."

Justin and Kelly offered no solutions, no quick fixes, just the truth of how life is now. How one seemingly innocent night irrevocably changed the lives of many. How each day, they choose to find a way forward.

For the Sparks family, one way of doing that is sharing with others how one decision can change the lives of many.

"It may seem worth it at the time," Justin said, referring to a night of partying, "but

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