For almost five years, Dr. Jorge Verea, whose practice is in West New York, and his wife Lourdes have been trying to turn their sorrow into a hopeful warning for others. Upon losing their daughter Rebeka in a car accident in 2005, they committed their lives to preventing similar tragedies from happening to other parents.
On the night of her graduation from Cliffside Park High School, Rebeka was riding in the passenger seat of a car with her friend Alexis Torres behind the wheel. When the car swerved to avoid hitting a truck near West Side Avenue and 74th Street in North Bergen, they crashed and Rebeka was killed instantly.
“We are trying to raise awareness about an epidemic.” – Dr. Jorge Verea
The Vereas started the Rebeka Verea Foundation, headquartered in West New York, the year that their daughter died.
Teenagers are the only age group in the United States whose life expectancy has either reached a plateau or declined in recent years. Motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death amongst this age group, according to the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety.
“They’re not accidents,” said Dr. Verea last week. “There is a choice when your foot is on the pedal. It’s a national disaster.”
“My foundation is not a business; it’s a blessing to save lives.” – Lourdes Verea
Statistics show that over 6,000 teens between the ages of 16 and 20 die in car crashes in the United States each year. “That’s 16 kids dying every day in teen-driven vehicles,” said Verea. “We are trying to raise awareness about an epidemic.”
The Vereas believe that their foundation has found a niche. “My foundation is not a business,” said Mrs. Verea. “It’s a blessing to save lives.”
Since 2005, the foundation has spread quickly to other communities and they have received feedback from as far as Argentina.
The Vereas conduct educational programs in New Jersey and hold an annual summit on teen driving safety. They also hold an annual gala to raise money for their foundation and for programs like Project Graduation, which keeps teens off the streets after graduation exercises.
Extending the rainbow
Rainbows have been associated with The Rebeka Verea Foundation since its inception. Mrs. Verea often tells the story of a rainbow over Manhattan on the day of Rebeka’s wake, which was a symbol to them of their daughter’s eternal presence and has become the emblem of their organization.
The goal of the foundation has been to extend that rainbow. Chapters are opening up worldwide, from Memorial High School in West New York to a university in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The Vereas are hoping to begin raising awareness of teen driving risks during the first year of high school instead of waiting until senior year.
“We want kids to understand that their life is beautiful,” said Mrs. Verea. “It’s in their hands.”
In October 2009, students at Memorial High School involved in the MOM (My Outreach Mission) program chose to create a chapter of the Rebeka Verea Foundation at their school as part of their mission.
“[Verea] was a student just like they are,” said advisor and faculty member Sue Colacurcio. “We talked about ‘Say Yes to Life’ and the kids said ‘This is part of who we are, we want to save lives. We have to save our own lives.’ ”
Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega is a member of the foundation’s board.
“I’ve been involved with the foundation from the beginning,” said Vega. “They’ve always been very active, not just in West New York but all of Hudson County. They’ve done a marvelous job of turning something very painful into hope and a great future for a lot of young people.”
Gala March 20
A gala will be held on March 20 to raise funds for The Rebeka Verea Foundation. And at the end of April they will hold their annual education seminar for high school students and faculty.
“These are difficult times right now,” said Dr. Verea. “But we can bring people together through events like this. They have to understand that life is fragile; people shouldn’t take it for granted.”
The Rebeka Verea Foundation gave approximately $190,000 to Project Graduation and other safe driver educational programs last year. Additional funds raised from fundraising efforts this year will also be split among schools throughout the area to support those programs.
Diego Solis, the nephew of Lourdes and a university student in Guadalajara (which is also Mrs. Verea’s hometown) was inspired during a five-week stay with his aunt this winter to create a chapter of the foundation at his school.
“It’s a crisis there too,” said Solis, adding that he hopes to seek assistance from his university and the local authorities. The goal is to open the new chapter in Guadalajara on the same day of the gala taking place here in the United States to stretch a rainbow across the countries on that day.
“Rebeka is never going to come back to us, but we want to help other parents so they never have to go through this terrible pain,” said Mrs. Verea.
For more information, please visit www.rebekavereafoundation.org or call (201) 758-9600.
Lana Rose Diaz can be reached at email@example.com.