Graveside gathering in Chattanooga honors spirit of Kevin Yates

Graveside gathering in Chattanooga honors spirit of Kevin Yates

April 3rd, 2012 by Todd South in News

Family and friends of Kevin Yates release balloons Monday at his grave site in Hamilton Memorial Gardens. Yates would have celebrated his 26th birthday, but he died after being struck by an alleged drunk driver last summer.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

A group of family and friends clustered around a grave in Hamilton Memorial Gardens on Monday evening for a birthday celebration marked with smiles and tears.

Each clutched at least one ribbon holding a balloon, some with messages written on their pink or yellow or blue or green shells -- "Happy Birthday Kevin" or "I love you so much big bro!"

Monday would have been Kevin Yates' 26th birthday. But 10 months ago, on July 31, 2010, an alleged drunken driver slammed head-on into his Chrysler minivan and he died a few days later.

The driver, Latisha Stephens, faces a possible sentencing hearing today in Hamilton County Criminal Court.

But Monday night wasn't about the wreck, it was about keeping memories alive.

"It was a tragedy for Kevin, for anyone to die in that way, we just don't want him to be forgotten," said Mark Yates, Kevin's father. "It obviously doesn't just affect a mom and dad, just look around.

"By keeping him alive, it keeps that one little spark in someone who maybe says I shouldn't drink this or maybe I shouldn't get behind the wheel," Mark Yates said.

Yates' mother, Tiki Finlayson, shared some joy through the tears as she read a letter from a man who received Kevin's heart due to his organ donation. Friends shared memories of Yates' love of Jackie Chan movies, Batman and video games.

The more than 40 people huddled close and released nearly 100 balloons that drifted up and eastward on the breeze.

Yates' older brother, Derek Yates, on Monday released a cover of a song titled "Guardian Angel" by the band Red Jumpsuit Apparatus that he sang with friend Alicia Hill on iTunes and Youtube.

The song honors his brother, and proceeds will go to a nonprofit formed to educate against drunken driving and provide grief counseling and support for surviving relatives of drunken driving victims. The organization -- 1N3 -- refers to the statistic that one in three people is affected by drunken driving.

"We wanted to target the people that do drink and drive, the kids, the ones who haven't chosen that lifestyle yet," Finlayson said.

The music, the organization and even the balloon release are all ways Finlayson said she and others can be proactive in their grief.

Mark Yates agreed.

"We can sit back in the corner and say look what happened to us as a family," Mark Yates said. "And that's not what we're trying to do at all. We're trying to bring an awareness of something."

Contact staff writer Todd South at 423-757-6347 or tsouth@timesfreepress.com.