Rebeka Verea had the entire world before her. The 18-year-old had just graduated from Cliffside Park High School June 20, 2005, headed for any number of possibilities. Then, she decided to take a car ride through North Bergen with friend Alexis Torres, then 19, who had graduated from North Bergen High.
It turned out to be her last.
Torres’ car eventually rear-ended a tractor-trailer near West Side Avenue and 74th Street, an impact so strong it ripped the roof off and killed Verea 3.5 seconds later.
Days after their daughter passed away, Jorge and Lourdes Verea took action. They formed the non-profit Rebeka Verea Foundation. Not only is it a tribute to their youngest daughter, bur it serves as a way to teach teens to be safe and responsible while driving.
On March 25, the Foundation will hold its 12th annual fundraising gala at the Cliffside Park Palisadium ballroom.
Making teens better drivers
The money raised goes to an annual student educational symposium on teenage driving. The symposium is set for Apr. 26, two days after Rebeka's birthday. It features her parents and others speaking to over 1,100 students from over 32 different high schools about road awareness. Since 2015, the Foundation has also held a shorter, separate symposium for parents and teachers, educating them on stopping reckless teen drivers.
We also teach them that a vehicle is a weapon, that once they have a license, it's a privilege that can be taken away.”
According to the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, 33 percent of deaths among 13- to 19-year-olds in 2010 happened from motor vehicle crashes. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2,270 teens in the U.S., ages 16 through 19, died from vehicle crashes in 2014. That meant that six teens in that age group died every day that year from such accidents.
“A week after the passing, she [Lourdes] made a promise to her daughter that she would educate children about this,” said Barbara Rana, vice president for the foundation.
“We teach them that there is no texting while driving—hands free, no cellphones. We show them something which I didn't know myself—is that side impact from 18 MPH can be fatal. So no distractions.”
She noted, “Sometimes you can be a victim; sometimes you're the person at fault.”
Rana said, “Their mantra and their logo is, 'Saying yes to life.' She noted that “there hasn't been any contact with the gentleman [Torres], although the Vereas have reached out. He hasn't reached out back to them. There's no animosity between the families; they just want to focus on taking the negative towards the positive.”
The theme for this year's gala is “A Roaring 1920s Celebration,” which will feature 1920s formal attire. Each year, it honors people who have worked to address careless driving by teenagers. For 2017 the gala will feature Hudson County Sheriff Frank Schillari and M.D. Kelly Rippey, from Hackenasck University Medical Center, as honorees.
Hudson towns honor Verea
Though the Foundation holds most of its events in Bergen County, they previously held candlelight vigils at the block where Verea died, only stopping because it is a dangerous intersection. North Bergen Township also placed a speedometer on the block where she was killed, Rana said
In 2010, West New York dedicated a new stealth police vehicle to Verea's memory, with a sticker of her on it. Officers currently use the vehicle for radar and DUI checks. It also makes an appearance at every symposium. The town also dedicated a street in her name, Rebeka Verea Way, on 56th Street and Park Ave. Jorge Verea, who is an M.D., has his practice in the town. He is also a chief medical officer for the North Hudson Community Action Corporation.
For more information on the foundation and gala, call 201-758-9600 or visit http://rebekavereafoundation.com/.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org