"The pain of her loss is still strong," said Verea, who is the medical director for the North Hudson Community Action Corporation. "There is still so much pain for us. But we've decided to translate that pain into positive energy, into making a difference, so that our daughter didn't die in vain. We get through it day by day, filling up our buckets with pain that has become an inexhaustible amount of energy."
Soon after Rebeka Verea, who was born in North Bergen, was killed in that tragic accident on West Side Avenue, the Verea family formed the Rebeka Verea Foundation. The non-profit organization is geared toward promoting safe driving among teenagers.
Since its inception, the Verea Foundation has been raising money while raising awareness.
"We had to do something in Rebeka's memory, because she's still in our hearts," Dr. Verea said. "We're committed to helping the community, continuing to bring the issues to bear."
Rebeka was a passenger in the car driven by her friend, who was allegedly under the influence of alcohol.
Staying sober that night On Tuesday, the Verea Foundation presented a check for $5,000 to the North Bergen High School senior class to help fund Project Graduation. For the last 15 years, North Bergen has held the post-commencement party in a drug and alcohol-free environment, a safe way for the students to celebration their graduation from high school. In recent years, the North Bergen Project Graduation has been held at the Chelsea Piers in New York, where a host of fun activities take place for the graduates.
Unfortunately, Cliffside Park High School, which young Rebeka attended, did not have a Project Graduation party.
The check presentation was the first of what will become several donations from the Verea Foundation for similar Project Graduation celebrations.
"It's appropriate because Rebeka was born in North Bergen and she died here," Dr. Verea said. "It's almost fitting in a spiritual sense. They say you always return where you start, so this was an appropriate start to our cause. This is like she's coming back to her home. This is the first check of many and we're thrilled to have it begin in North Bergen."
Frances Perez, the president of the senior class at North Bergen High School, has been organizing fundraisers, like charity dodgeball and basketball games, car washes, a fashion show, and an open mike night, in order to collect the $60,000 necessary to pay for Project Graduation.
Needless to say, Perez was overjoyed when she learned of the large donation.
"It really helps a lot in getting to our ultimate goal," Perez said. "We were really honored when we heard the Verea Foundation was giving us this money. Peer pressure is no joke. We all knew what happened and saw what happened. It was a tragedy for all of us. I'm just so grateful that they chose us. We definitely won't forget Rebeka and her family."
Grows in price North Bergen Principal Paschal "Pat" Tennaro said that Project Graduation has become more of a costly event over the years.
"When we first started, it was like $7,000," Tennaro said. "Now, it's $60,000. We've become more sophisticated with what we do that night. But we all know it's essential. It contributes to the legacy of North Bergen High School. Project Graduation saves lives. We're tying to save lives, like the Verea Foundation wants to do. We know it's hard for kids today to say no to drugs and alcohol, especially in a celebration like graduation. Dealing with peer pressure is not easy. Our kids know how to walk away. Thanks to this donation, our kids will continue to have a safe graduation party."
Dr. Verea said that the foundation is tirelessly working toward getting the word out.
"We're already moving forward and talking with other schools, with other students," Dr. Verea said. "We're making a change in the community. Fort Lee High School is going to have Project Graduation this year for the first time. We believe that Cliffside Park, where Rebeka went, will also do the same, with help from the foundation. Parents now identify with what we're doing. We're touching hearts across the state. We're getting donation checks from all over the country, even foreign countries, from $5 to $2,000. We're raising awareness for safe and responsible driving. We're making a difference, teaching people that it's the No. 1 cause of death in teenagers."
Added Verea, "We're just relentless in our efforts. Once politicians raise the issue on a legislative level, we'll do even better."
Dr. Verea said that the safe driving issue among teens has been raised in California's state legislature.
"We're making a difference in terms of family values and safety," Dr. Verea said. "We're making an impact on the safety of our children. For us and our family, it's extremely important to keep Rebeka's memory alive. So many people now see her picture, the posters and recognize her. It's all positive. Her face is always a reminder of what we're trying to do."