Vickroy: Teacher shares heartbreaking story to keep prom-goers safe
By Donna Vickroy email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy April 22, 2013 10:05PM
Cora Umeker, who heads up the SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) chapter at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, talks about the program Thursday, April 18, 2013. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 24, 2013 6:07AM
It is a human flaw that until we are touched by tragedy, we consider ourselves immune to it.
Like so many, Cora Umeker grew up believing teenagers are invincible. That is, until her senior year of high school. The reality that kids are not wrapped in a special safety net strong enough to protect them from their own bad decisions hit her hard, and stays with her to this day.
That’s why she now takes on the challenge of bursting that bubble of bravado in teens. As the faculty sponsor of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, Umeker is so determined to guide teens safely into adulthood that she enlists a rather unusual army of enforcers: middle schoolers.
For the past three years, the special-education teacher has reached out to local middle schools and invited the youngsters to make prom cards for the Richards juniors and seniors heading off to the annual dance. Prom kicks off what Umeker calls the season of drinking and driving. The cards remind the older students to be safe, to make good decisions, that people are waiting for them to get home safely.
Her efforts have been so well received that sister schools in Community High School District 218 now have adopted the program for their prom-goers. Youngsters at Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School make cards for the Richards kids, while students at Veterans Memorial Middle School in Blue Island make them for Eisenhower dance-goers, and youngsters at Independence Junior High School in Palos Heights make them for Shepard upperclassmen.
There’s talk that Oak Lawn Community High School may introduce the cooperative program there this year, too.
Umeker’s story begins in the spring of 1986, just before she was to graduate from Reavis High School in Burbank.
“A friend that I had grown up with since grammar school ... had taken his own life in the middle of the night at one of the parks we hung out in,” Umeker said. “He hung himself and was found in the early hours of the morning.”
Umeker and her friends never knew why, something that continues to haunt her to this day.
“We were devastated as a school,” she said. “(The boy) was a junior. I remember attending his wake. What I remember most are the single roses that all the girls were bringing and placing at his casket.”
As awful as that incident was, things were about to get worse for Umeker and her peers.
Immediately after graduation, Umeker left for a summer band trip to Canada.
“We were still reeling from (the boy’s) death when I got word that my friend Joann Velcich had been killed in a car accident coming home from the lakefront with her boyfriend,” she said.
The couple, a year younger than Umeker, had been drinking. While driving home on Interstate 55, the boyfriend drove onto the shoulder of the road and hit a parked car, Umeker said. Joann was thrown through the windshield and killed. The boy survived with minor injuries.
“That hit me hard. Joann was in my math class and we spoke every day,” Umeker said. “I can’t remember the name of our teacher, or anyone else who was in our class, but I can remember exactly how the class was set up and where she sat. It’s a perfect picture in my head.”
Umeker got home in time to attend Joann’s wake — something she will never forget.
“Her mother made a statement by having an open casket. She wanted us to understand the consequences of drinking and driving,” Umeker said. “It worked for me.”
Umeker can still see the image of her friend, evidence of her injuries apparent, lying in the casket.
“When you go head-first through the windshield, there’s a lot of damage,” she said. “I have a clear picture in my head of what she looked like. I can even remember what she was wearing. Nothing could prepare me for that visual.”
During the visitation, Umeker became so distraught at one point that she ran out of the room.
After she pulled herself together, she went back in and properly told Joann’s mother how sorry she was.
“It’s a moment I will never forget,” she said.
She left the wake not only sad but worried about the boyfriend, who was struggling to keep it together.
“We were right to be worried,” she said. “He took his own life that summer.”
Another wake, she said.
Umeker said in the span of a few months, the Class of 1987 suffered three tragic deaths.
“Those losses really made me think about my future and how I wanted to live my life,” she said.
So when she was offered the position to lead SADD, she took it.
Her older brother, Frank Kernats, a history teacher at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, encouraged her to accept the job because, he told her, it was one club that “just might save a life.” Years before, Kernats was nearly killed when a drunk driver slammed into his disabled vehicle on I-294. Moments before the crash that completely flattened the driver’s seat, Kernats had gotten out of the car to check a tire.
Even now, more than 25 years later, Umeker thinks about that sad chapter in her life, about why her peers made the choices they made, and mostly, what they might have gone on to accomplish had they lived.
“This is the time of the year that I think about them the most. I wonder what career they would have chosen, would they be married with kids of their own?” she said. ”Their deaths taught me that I was not invincible and that bad things do happen.
“We have some control over that though in the choices we make,” she said. “That is what I tell the students in SADD club at every meeting: ‘You have a choice, don’t make it a bad one.’ ”
The prom cards are being designed and decorated this week. They will be placed into prom bags and handed out to all prom-goers during a mandatory prom assembly May 2, the day before the dance.
While she has no way of knowing for sure, Umeker believes older kids are more likely to pay attention to a warning or safety plea made by a little kid. There have been no prom-related accidents or tragedies since the card program began.
Alyssa Contento is a member of SADD. She also plans to attend prom.
“I hate to say no to a little kid,” the Richards senior said. “So, yeah, if I got a card from a little kid reminding me to make good choices, it would definitely affect me and make me think.”