One mother’s mission

First slide

Can any good come from the death of a 16-year-old? Robin Thompson, a parishioner of St. Timothy Parish in Chantilly, is doing her best to find out - especially since the 16-year-old was her daughter.

In June 2003, Ashley Renee Thompson died instantly when the car she was driving swerved off the road and hit a tree. Ashley wasn't on a cell phone or speeding. She wasn't under the influence, and had no passengers to distract her. She was three blocks from home. "Inexperience and a possible distraction" were deemed the causes of the mid-afternoon accident.

Clinging to this information, her mother has begun a personal crusade to inform teens of the dangers of inexperienced driving.

"Something good has to come from something so horrific," Thompson said in an interview last week.

The "ripple effect" of Ashley's death included the development of the Ashley Renee Thompson Memorial Foundation, a branch of which is the educational outreach program The ART of Driving. Its goal: to educate teens and parents "on the unique risks faced by our novice drivers."

Thompson has spoken at high schools, youth conferences, to large assemblies and small groups - basically "whoever will stand still long enough to listen to me." She begins with a seven-minute video describing Ashley's life and death. Her audience thus captivated, she moves on to a Power Point presentation demonstrating steps teens can take to avoid common pitfalls of inexperienced drivers. Her goals are to demonstrate how easily tragedy can occur, and to help teens identify the risk factors linked to their demographic.

The program received the 2009 Governor's Transportation Safety Award for Youth Traffic Safety in the commonwealth last month when it was recognized by the Virginia Department of Transportation as an organization that makes a contribution to safe transportation in Virginia.

Misty Boyd, chair of the health and physical education department at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, said Thompson's June talk at the school resulted in complete silence from the students.

"That tells you everything," Boyd said. "They were shocked and really moved by the presentation."

Any kind of presentation targeting high schools has to reach them at an emotional level, and that's what The ART of Driving does, Boyd added.

"It's as close to real as they're going to get to understanding the risks that they're going to take getting into a car," she said. "It's a real hardcore reality exposure to the risks of driving and how it affected her life."

Bob Digby, driver's education teacher at Lake Braddock High School in Burke, where Ashley attended high school, said the presentation's local angle helped engage the Lake Braddock students.

"They knew right where it happened," he said. "A lot of them had older brothers and sisters who knew Ashley. The locality of it is probably bigger than the fact that it's just another teen fatality."

Digby, himself, taught Ashley when she was in middle school. He added that Thompson's straightforward presentation helped dissolve some of the students' invincible "it won't happen to me" mindsets.

"She very candidly told Ashley's story and tried to explain to the kids that even if you're doing the right thing, a lot can go wrong."

A relationship with John Paul II

In the six years since Ashley's death, Thompson has sought purpose through The ART of Driving and healing through faith.

In 1987, when Ashley was six months old, the Thompson family was in Rome for a papal audience with John Paul II. She described their unique experience in a reflection in a March 2006 issue of the Catholic Herald:

"I noticed the pope motion for his driver to stop, and what happened next is forever etched into my heart and memory. He reached out with his right hand and cupped the left side of Ashley's face and tiny head. The tender expression on his face and the love in his eyes said it all."

After Ashley's death on June 10, 2003, Robin wrote John Paul II, including pictures and a memoriam card from Ashley's funeral with her letter. To her "delight and surprise," the pope wrote back, offering words of comfort and encouragement. He advised her to rely on Romans 8:28: "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose."

"He brought so much comfort to me after her death," Thompson said. "I don't know how you cope with something like this if you don't have faith. My faith has sustained me."

As a result, she knows that the real goal of her initiative is to do God's will.

"This isn't about me," she said.

In Ashley's memory

The ART of Driving would not be in existence if it weren't for Ashley, and it's her memory that drives Thompson to continue pushing for safer teen driving. The initials in The ART of Driving that stand for "Awareness, Responsibility and Training," also stand for Ashley Renee Thompson. She's behind it all.

"This program is my way of honoring Ashley's memory," Thompson said. "Doing something positive is the best way to honor her."

Her simple mission is to save one teen at a time.

"My passion and my desire is to get the whole story out there and to really educate parents and teens on the risks," she said. "If just one listens and gets the message then I've done my job and I've made Ash proud."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009