published Sunday, July 28th, 2013

The loss of a son sends a family on a journey into the depths of their own hearts (with video)

Mother forgives drunk driver after crash killed her son
While traveling home from work on Highway 153, Kevin Yates was struck and killed by a drunk driver on July 31, 2011. But rather than hold a grudge, Kevin's mother Tiki Finlayson chose to forgive the driver and start the 1N3 organization in her son's memory. The name is a reference to statistics citing that one in three Americans is affected by drunken driving.
Tiki Finlayson; her son, Derek Yates; and her husband, Tom Finlayson, stand in front the crushed van in which Tiki's other son, Kevin Yates, died after being hit by a drunken driver. Tiki Finlayson uses the van in the program she founded, 1IN3, to raise awareness to the dangers of drinking and driving.
Tiki Finlayson; her son, Derek Yates; and her husband, Tom Finlayson, stand in front the crushed van in which Tiki's other son, Kevin Yates, died after being hit by a drunken driver. Tiki Finlayson uses the van in the program she founded, 1IN3, to raise awareness to the dangers of drinking and driving.
Photo by Dan Henry.
Poll
Could you forgive someone who killed one of your loved ones?

9 STEPS TO FORGIVENESS

1 Know exactly how you feel about what happened. Articulate it to a few trusted people.

2 Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.

3 Know forgiveness doesn't mean reconciliation with the person who hurt you, or condoning his or her action.

4 Get the right perspective on what is happening.

5 At the moment you feel upset, practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body's flight-or-fight response.

6 Give up expecting things from other people, or your life, that they do not choose to give you.

7 Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt, seek out new ways to get what you want.

8 Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.

9 Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.

Source: Stanford Forgiveness Project

SOBERING STATISTIC

Every day 30 people in the U.S. die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver.

This amounts to one death every 48 minutes.

Source: 1N3

Alcohol-related traffic fatalities in Hamilton County

2006 // 18

2007 // 17

2008 // 11

2009 // 15

2010 // 15

2011 // 14

Source: Governor's Highway Safety Office

Before the crushed left side of his face was fixed by a mortician and the matted blood was combed from his hair, Tiki Finlayson already had decided to forgive the woman who killed her son.

Finlayson prayed for the wrong-way drunken driver before Kevin was even dead.

That was what she felt like God needed her to do, to make her son's death mean something.

Now the van that Kevin was driving when death came calling two years ago Thursday sits in her front yard in Chattanooga.

She and her husband keep it covered with a tarp to preserve its ugliness, the rusting metal, the sharp edges of splintered glass.

They keep the driver's-side door that crushed their 25-year-old son. It was pried off by firefighters trying to get to him, and has been placed upright in the back. Finlayson keeps the 2004 Chrysler Voyager as it would have been in the moment Kevin was found inside it on the side of the road. His shoe is still lodged between the floor and the brake pedal. His 2-year-old cola can still rests in the cup holder.

The hulk of tangled steel has become the centerpiece in Finlayson's crusade against drunk driving. She hauls the van to schools, police trainings and rehab centers.

Children and teens and addicts look inside it and feel afraid. They look inside and decide to be more responsible. They promise Finlayson they won't do what that woman did to her family.

But as much as the vehicle conveys fear and loss, Finlayson also uses it as a powerful symbol of pardon.

Eventually, she plans to stand side by side with the killer and the van and tell a story of slates wiped clean, a story about how bad things can lead to good.

And she'll tell it even though some people in her own family don't want to hear it, even though the thought of forgiving this woman makes their stomachs turn.

•••

Forgiveness may be trumpeted in church and on counselors' couches but it's not a cultural virtue. We live in a world of open grudges. We live in an angry world made more so by screaming television housewives and George Zimmerman verdicts and molesting priests.

Biologically, according to Fred Luskin, author of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, we are negatively biased. The human brain naturally focuses on the darkness. And when we are hurt emotionally or physically, our bodies, our brains go on guard. Our nervous system reacts. Trauma teaches lessons that are hard to forget.

Robert Enright, a forgiveness researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said few people are taught how to forgive because we are ambiguous about the value of forgiveness.

We laud figures who can overcome anger. We quote Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

We laud characters who take vengeance, too. James Bond. Harry Potter. Batman.

So if someone is going to make forgiveness a practice they have to prepare for tragedy, expect to be wronged, Enright said.

Look at the Amish. When a gunman executed five schoolchildren in Nickel Mines, Pa., in 2006 the crime scene hadn't even been cleaned up before Amish families were sending notes of forgiveness to the killer's family. They brought the widow food and flowers. Half of those at the killer's burial were Amish.

These tight-knit communities emphasize a predisposition toward forgiveness and shun the impulse to seek revenge, instead believing justice to be a divine matter.

At its core, regardless of spiritual belief, people come to forgive because they come to recognize every person's tendency to err, he said.

"The biggest reason that people resist [forgiveness] is the profound confusion that is in the human heart," he said. "When people are fuming, they are zeroed in on justice. Mercy is abhorrent."

•••

What is left of Kevin is kept under a twin bed in his old room. A Legends of Zelda poster. The Buffalo Wild Wings name badge he wore the night he died. A lock of hair his mother kept from 2009 when he decided, for a short period, not to keep his hair long.

Finlayson keeps his belongings organized neatly in a silver trunk, like the memories she shares about her son. The carefully selected details have been polished through hundreds of speeches and phone calls and letters that have issued forth from the organization formed in Kevin's memory.

It is called 1N3, named for a sobering statistic: One in three people are affected by drunk driving. The group has taken off and now reaches people across the nation and around the globe.

He was a geek who wore a dogtag with his gaming ID on it. He loved Batman. He was saving up money to start a video gaming cafe while he worked late hours at a restaurant and lived in a small room at my house. He had just fallen in love with a girl he met online.

The next part is when people cry. Some weeks she tells the blow-by-blow five times a week. She can do it now without tearing up.

The driver who killed my son, Latisa Stephens, started the night drinking spiked punch at a friend's house on Highway 58. Then she and some friends drove to a bar and drank more. When she drove home from the bar at 1 a.m., her friends forced her to pull over and get out of the driver's seat. But when they arrived home she jumped back in the drivers seat and drove off. Her blood alcohol level was .2, more than two times the legal limit.

When she pulled onto Highway 153 at Jersey Pike she was driving on the wrong side of the road.

Kevin had waited on a birthday party that night at work. At 1:30 a.m. he texted his girlfriend and told her he was going home.

He was three miles from work when he saw the blue Jeep headed toward him, at mile marker 7.4.

She plays the actual 911 calls. The voices are frantic.

"There has been a terrible wreck. ... The people are dead."

•••

Finlayson began doing prison ministry about the time she started dating her second husband, Tom, 12 years ago. He was a pastor's son gone wrong. He became an alcoholic, a cocaine addict, in and out of prison. Later, he decided to do Christian work in the prisons with men like him. Finlayson, an ordained minister, went along.

Weekly she talked to murderers, rapists and DUI offenders. She led them to ask forgiveness from God. She learned more about what brought them to those low places. She felt sympathy, even empathy.

Over time, she said, she learned to forgive former boyfriends who had beaten her. She let go of the hurt after her divorce from her first husband.

She knew the toll bitterness could take. The rage, the outbursts, fists hitting the wall, not eating.

So she said forgiving Stephens was almost an impulse.

"Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die," she said. "Holding anything against her doesn't change the fact that Kevin isn't here. I chose to take control."

Casey, Kevin's best friend, said he couldn't believe how emotionless Finlayson seemed at the funeral.

The family decorated in a Batman theme. The pastors were cheery, talking about eternity. People made jokes.

Finlayson called it Kevin's homegoing. Casey said he remembers seeing her cry, but only once.

Even Finlayson wondered about her reaction. She went to grief counseling and was told that there were stages to grief and she was skipping one: anger. But she didn't agree. She stopped going.

She thought of all the good that had come from losing Kevin. People had come to know Jesus. A man in Memphis got Kevin's heart. His liver went to save a 72-year-old man. Both his kidneys were used, too.

And 1N3. It would do so much good. Grief counseling. Addiction counseling. Awareness at schools. People would be safe because of Kevin, she said.

In the first days after Kevin's death someone suggested Finlayson get involved with changing laws against drunk driving and be a part of M.A.D.D., Mother's Against Drunk Driving. But she resisted.

"I wasn't mad," she said. "I am still not mad. I have never been mad."

But Kevin's father, his aunt, his cousin and his friends felt differently. They didn't want to see Kevin's face on the backs of T-shirts, or look at the van or drive by billboards touting the organization. They didn't want to meet Stephens or do anything but despise her.

While Finlayson secured speaking gigs and Derek, Kevin's brother, wrote songs to perform, the others pulled away.

Kevin's father refused to talk about the death. Casey refused to participate in 1N3 events even though Finlayson would invite him.

"Thinking about it eats away at me. So I try not to," Casey said.

Intellectually, he knows he should forgive, but he can't. He wants revenge. If he was driving and saw the woman who killed Kevin, he said he wouldn't promise not to run her over.

At night, when Kevin's aunt, Crystal Richards, couldn't sleep she wrote letters to Stephens, venting her anger.

"I didn't want Kevin to be a martyr," Richards said.

Richard's son, Dustin, stopped coming around the family and started going to counseling. He said he tried to forgive. He prayed so many nights to forgive like Finlayson, but he couldn't.

Everyone tried not to be angry at her. She was the mother, after all.

•••

Finlayson met Stephens for the first time on March 29 last year, three days before her court sentencing.

Most of the family members came to the courthouse, too, the people who forgave her and those who didn't.

Richards had condensed 60 letters she had written to Stephens down to five pages, and as she read them, Stephens cried.

"Dear Drunk Driver," she read. "Have you thought about how you are going to explain to your children what you have done and how they are going to look at you for the rest of their life? Some great role model you have turned out to be. ... Can you tell I am bitter toward you? Are you looking around feeling like you want to crawl into a hole? Do you feel like you want to die? Good. I can't say I feel sorry for you, and I won't apologize for that either."

"I hate you."

Finlayson went last.

She showed Stephens pictures of Kevin alive. Then she showed her pictures of Kevin in the hospital. She played recordings of Kevin talking.

Then she made Stephens an offer. She would agree to push for a lower sentence if Stephens promised to dedicate part of her life to the organization created in Kevin's honor.

She would have to stand before crowds with Finlayson and say over and over again what she did and why she did it.

Finlayson said she wanted to mentor her, to help her get her life in order.

Stephens agreed. She promised to help the organization weekly.

"I forgive you," Finlayson said. "But I want you to understand what you've done."

The two held each other for a long time.

Afterward, waiting for the judge to declare her sentence, Stephens stood next to a courtroom wall and made her first 1N3 testimony. It was recorded on video that would be used to promote the organization and its message.

Stephens was sentenced to eight years in prison for vehicular homicide by intoxication and 6 years supervised probation but is serving 20 percent of the time.

•••

Months went by and Finlayson's family thought a lot about how Stephens had acted in their meeting. She had cried so much. She made no excuses.

Even though Richards was angrier than anyone, she said her heart started to soften. Something had to change, she thought. She had panic attacks when she drove down Highway 153. She was constantly checking her phone to see if her children had arrived home safely at night. She watched Facebook to learn where extended family were. Sometimes, she was too afraid to drive.

"I was at the bottom of the pit," she said.

Meanwhile, she saw Finlayson moving forward. No breakdowns. Finlayson wrote Stephens and told her that the story of Kevin was making a difference, that she still forgave her.

So Richards decided to try Finlayson's way. She spoke at a driver's education class with 1N3. She talked about Kevin. She wore the T-shirt. She cried in front of strangers, she said.

It felt good.

She encouraged her son, Dustin, to try too. Finally, she got him to go to Riverbend to help with the 1N3 booth. He was nervous, asking people to sign safe driver pledges. He didn't feel comfortable talking to people about Kevin, he said.

When the video came on behind him with the images of the wreck, the 911 calls, Stephens' voice, he walked away.

"I couldn't do it," he said. "I just broke down. ... I can't imagine my baby cousin laying there broken and mangled. Nobody there to help him."

"I can say God is good and I can say God is just and I can say God is merciful, but what I can't say is that I am all these things. That is the big question. Can I forgive the person who killed my cousin, and I don't think I can."

•••

By fall, Stephens will be out of prison.

Finlayson is excited to see her. She wants to plan presentations and work on healing. Richards is less excited.

She has finally forgiven Stephens for what she did, but she is nervous about spending time together.

Earlier this year, she wrote Stephens a letter and told her she wasn't ready for the release. How could it be so soon? That's it, that's all Kevin life was worth?

Richards keeps the letter that Stephens wrote back.

"It's a horrible feeling to have when you are the reason someone died, that you caused countless amounts of people this unimaginable ever lasting pain. ... There is no way I could ever be OK with what I have done. I certainly don't expect anyone else to be. I guess that is why I don't understand or know how to take the forgiveness you have shown me... I am very grateful. I just don't think I deserve it. I pray that God will help me with that. I know that he is a forgiving God and I pray that he will help me to forgive myself some day."

Richards wrote Stephens back one more time.

"You don't need to say you are sorry anymore."

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601. Follow her on Twitter at @JoanGarrettCTFP.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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