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Accidental Activists

Turning unspeakable tragedies into forces for good

Pam O’Donnell with daughter Ali and dog Peanut Photos by Max Ryazansky

Pam O’Donnell walks the baseball field with her daughter Ali and their new dog, Peanut. Stephen R. Gregg Park means a lot to her family. She often circles the bases, talking to her husband and remembering her family as it was. Tim O’Donnell was a proud two-time Coach of the Year. Pam says that to be a great coach, the entire family has to be on board, and the O’Donnells certainly were. “When our first daughter was born, we left the hospital and drove straight to a softball game,” O’Donnell recalls. “Our lives truly did revolve around softball.”

Tim O’Donnell and their 5-year-old daughter, Bridget, were killed in a car accident in February near the 14C toll plaza on the New Jersey Turnpike. It was a typical day; they were heading home from work and daycare. A reckless driver sped into the O’Donnells’ car at a toll plaza, sending them into the other side of the highway into oncoming traffic.

Tim O’Donnell, a lifelong resident of Bayonne, was a math and scienceteacher at County Prep High School in Jersey City.

“He is my knight in shining armor. He saved me in so many ways. We saved each other,” Pam says. “He was a true gentleman. He was old school. He pulled out chairs, opened doors, carried things, not because he thought women were helpless but because he had the utmost respect for the women in his life. There need to be more boys and men like Tim.”

She still can’t make sense of the loss. “I am catching myself talking about him in past and present tense,” she says. “I keep going back and forth, and it’s very difficult for me to accept that he is gone, that they are gone, so forgive me.”

Friends to Family

Rebecca Zlotnik, longtime co-teacher and friend of Tim O’Donnell, recalls his engagement to Pam, which happened before grand proposals became a modern trend. “The girls on his softball team were in on it,” she says. “Pam was scheduled to visit softball practice, and the girls had signs that spelled out ‘Will you marry me, Pam?’ Wow, to watch the joy on Tim’s and Pam’s faces was incredible.”

The couple welcomed two daughters, Ali, and then Bridget.

“On any random day I would find Tim just looking at his girls and just from the look on his face I knew what he was thinking; how happy he was to have a family of his own,” Pam says. “Tim had succeeded in giving us every dream we had as a couple, as parents, except for one, and that was to grow old together and sit on our front porch in our rocking chairs as an elderly couple and just watch our grandchildren running around our front lawn. Sadly that dream was stolen from us on that Monday afternoon.”

Pam says they respected each other’s freedom. “We never told each other we could or could not do something,” she says. “The only time he did not allow me to do something was during my cancer journey; he’d whisper in my ear, ‘You are not allowed to die.’”

Cancer Survivor

Pam was diagnosed in May 2014 and has been cancer free since December of that year, though she still receives post-cancer treatment. “The stakes are very high now that I am the only parent to my surviving daughter, Ali,” Pam says. “God forbid the cancer comes back; this notion scares the hell out of me every day. It’s a lifelong worry.”

Bridget had been inspired by her mother’s oncologist, Dr. Devarajan Iyengar, and dreamed of growing up to be a “cancer-curing-singing doctor.” Compassionate and brave, she stood up for her big sister. “Bridget defending her sister was a big deal,” Pam says. “While she was younger and smaller, she was larger than life. She was quite family-oriented; she would often say, ‘I am in your heart; you have me in your heart.’”

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the surviving O’Donnells were overwhelmed by the support of their neighbors. “I cannot thank the Bayonne community enough,” Pam says. “I don’t think the words ‘thank you’ are adequate. There had been so much support and generosity sent our way that it still boggles my mind. It is simply amazing what Bayonne can do during a time of crisis.”

As Pam began to heal, she honored her loved ones by starting a foundation. “It gives me purpose other than being known as the poor widow,” Pam says. “My husband always looked for the good in people, always looked for the silver lining. He would want something good to come out of this, Bridget too. The mind of a child is so incredible that all she saw was good. Something good has to come out of this situation.”

Catch You Later

Pam O’Donnell created the Catch You Later Foundation to spread awareness about aggressive driving and to urge witnesses to report it. After the O’Donnells’ fatal accident, eyewitnesses came forward to say that they had seen the other vehicle driving erratically for miles. Through Catch You Later, Pam hopes to urge New Jersey to improve and promote the #77 aggressive driver hotline, which is for nonemergency situations, though she says that calling 911 is best at this time.

The name Catch You Later came from Tim O’Donnell’s former student, Brittany Grazioso, who held a fundraiser two weeks after the crash. She had shirts made that said “Catch you later, Coach.”

“When the idea of the nonprofit came into play, we thought that would be perfect,” Pam says. “It is something he said numerous times to his players and his friends. It was always ‘catch you later,’ never ‘goodbye’; it just seemed fitting.”

The foundation also provides scholarships to high-school seniors in the Hudson County area. Pam wants to help young students who embody the spirit of her late husband and daughter.

“After reading the applications, for the first time since this tragedy occurred I have a glimmer of hope,” she says. “We see so much bad stuff in today’s society. It’s hard to see the good in people, and the applications certainly opened my eyes. I am hopeful for the future with these young people going out in the world and trying to make a difference.”

Remember Me

In March 2012 John “Jack” Santopietro was riding his motorcycle in Bayonne. He was struck by a minivan at 10th Street and Avenue E. He died the following day, his life cut short at age 21.

“Receiving that call is just devastating,” his mother, Margaret Abrams, says. “My life basically came to an end.”

Santopietro was a cancer survivor, first diagnosed at age 14. “He would lift up everyone else who was receiving care at the hospital,” Abrams recalls. He was “very faith filled” and active at Saint Henry’s Church.

Despite health problems, Santopietro achieved Eagle Scout, earned a black belt in karate, taught karate, and loved motorcycles. A 2008 Bayonne High School graduate, he expected to graduate from Hudson County Community College in May 2012.

A month after the accident, Abrams formed Remember Me…John “Jack” Santopietro, a nonprofit that promotes motorcycle awareness.

“I thought it would give his death some kind of purpose,” Abrams says. “He would give the shirt off his back, so we wanted to give back in his memory.”

She awards a yearly scholarship to a student majoring in fire science at New Jersey City University. Santopietro had planned to enter the program the fall after his death.

“We want to award the scholarship to fire science majors who are interested in community service, just like he was,” says Kevin Malley, department of fire science dean. “Every single one of the students to earn that scholarship has gone on to be successful.”

Remember Me also gives “campership” awards to Bayonne scouts attending Boy Scouts of America summer camp.

Later the foundation added a driving school scholarship to honor Karen Minutella, a Bayonne resident who had moved to Connecticut shortly before her death in a motorcycle accident.

Motorcycle Memories

The foundation also sponsors an event called Rider Of The Clouds. Before his death, Santopietro came up with the idea after witnessing his mother’s work with WomenRising Inc., a Jersey City organization that helps survivors of domestic violence. Abrams brought her son along to see an installation of the Clothesline Project, in which T-shirts are hung on a clothesline, each one telling the story of a victim or survivor of domestic violence. It makes a visual statement, showing that people are more than just statistics. Santopietro, who was moved by the event, suggested to his mother that something similar could be done to represent motorcycle fatalities. Abrams brought the idea to life after she lost her son. Her events use the striking visual of 21 life-size motorcycle silhouettes.

“It shows who was underneath the helmet,” Abrams says, as each motorcycle bears the name of an accident victim. Abrams notes that motorcycle fatalities have decreased in New Jersey since she started the foundation. “I know we are making a difference,” she says.

Skateboard Memories

Tyler Sellers was crossing Route 440 at 32nd Street with his friend Sabore Worrell in November 2015 when they were both killed by a motorist speeding at 106 miles per hour. His family wants people to remember him for the person he was.

“He was just happy, very happy,” his father, Jason Sellers, says. “He finally graduated and had his first job.”

“He was a free spirit, and his passion was skateboarding,” says his stepmother, Mary Kay Master Sellers.

“I took custody of Tyler when he was 10 years old,” Jason recalls. For Christmas that year, Jason and Mary Kay bought skateboards for Tyler and for Mary Kay’s daughter.

“We got them at Classic,” Mary Kay says, meaning Classic Skate Shop on Broadway at 35th Street. “Tyler just kept with skating,” she says. “It was his life. We have videos of him skating with ice on the ground. It could be freezing out, and they would still skate.”

Jason says that Tyler and his friends traveled all over to visit skate parks. There was a skate park here in Bayonne, but it had fallen into disrepair since it was first built in 2000.

Skate Park Gets New Life

The revamped First Street Skate Park beneath the Bayonne Bridge opened in June. Gary Iannitelli, owner of Classic Skate Shop, is executing some skateboard moves while Jason and Mary Kay look on.

“Skateboarding kind of died in Bayonne because the kids had nowhere to go,” says Iannitelli, who had rallied to help rebuild the skate park. He went to city hall with a petition that included more than 200 signatures, including those of the Sellers family. “The city had no idea how many skaters there were and how much of an impact that it had on the community,” Iannitelli says.

“Tyler looked forward to this, and he never got to skate it,” Jason says. “When they had the ribbon-cutting, we asked the mayor if we could just get a plaque, and then he dedicated the whole park to Tyler, and it just blew us away,” Mary Kay says. “It was bittersweet, but Tyler was there that day.

“I’m sure he’s here right now,” she says, watching Iannitelli take a spill as he skates up a ramp. “He’s laughing at Gary for falling.”

She says skateboarding keeps kids from getting in trouble.

Iannitelli says that the Sellers “have almost become the parents of the skate park. They are at every event at the park. I’m sure it’s a soothing feeling for them knowing that the memory of their son will live on with the new plaza and his friends who skated with him.”

Iannitelli was glad to see how receptive Mayor Jimmy Davis was.

“As a community, Bayonne has always been unique,” Davis says. “When something happens to our children, we come together. All three families are signs of the strength and resiliency of people in Bayonne. They are all to be commended for moving from their personal losses to positive activities that can improve or save the lives of others. I am moved by what all of them have done for the people of Bayonne.”—BLP

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