Accidental Activists
Turning unspeakable tragedies into forces for good
by Beth DiCara and Kate Rounds
Apr 25, 2017 | 2906 views | 0 0 comments | 322 322 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Accidental Activists
Photos courtesy of Beth DiCara
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Emma

At 6 a.m. on the Monday following Thanksgiving, Dec. 1, 2014, my husband John and I were awakened by the doorbell. Two Jersey City police officers stood in the doorway. One officer handed me a yellow Post-it note with the phone number of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and “Emma” written on it. They told me to call that number, and promptly left.

Our daughter, Emma Kate DiCara Tichenor, had gone to college at Dalhousie University in Halifax to study marine biology. Even as a little kid, she loved animals, all kinds of animals. For a city kid, she was exceptionally comfortable in the woods and on the water. She would collect toads and salamanders and turtles and bugs. She especially loved seining with her father at Liberty State Park and Sandy Hook, where they’d net tiny fish and crabs.

During college, she worked with sea turtles in Costa Rica, spent three months on a tiny island to save an endangered tern, and worked for the Department of Natural Resources in Nova Scotia studying human and coyote interaction. After graduating and much travel, she studied in Australia and New Zealand, earning a Master’s degree in Wildlife Conservation.

Finally, she returned to her beloved Nova Scotia, where she loved the seascape, the landscape, and the kindest people.

Emma had just come home for a surprise visit for Thanksgiving and to tell us she’d gotten engaged. She had her whole life in front of her, and it was looking grand.

Looking at that Post-it note, I’d assumed that our daughter had been in an accident and was in the hospital. Even as I dialed the number, I was mentally making plans to fly there as soon as possible. It was an accident. A man driving a produce delivery truck on Highway 101, just 15 minutes from her home, hit her head-on.

My only child, Emma Kate DiCara Tichenor, was not in the hospital; she was dead. She was 24, exactly one month shy of her 25th birthday. The coroner told me she died instantly, as though that would bring me comfort.

I did fly right to Nova Scotia, where there was a gathering of friends and colleagues; many loved Emma like a sister, like a daughter. After bringing her ashes home, we had another memorial gathering, held in Liberty State Park, on the Hudson River—so important to her when she was growing up.

At both events, friends, family, colleagues, and teachers spoke of her dedication to saving the planet, and the animals that share it with us.

Her science teachers at McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, where she graduated with honors in 2007, recalled her love of wildlife and mourned the loss of a young woman who was already on her way to becoming an accomplished scientist.

It was with this in mind that her father and I established the Emma Tichenor Student Award at Acadia University to fund work on black bears and to help a student who shares Emma’s interests. This was the next project Emma was to pursue.

It’s been two years since Emma died. The pain is as sharp as ever. You never stop grieving for your child. We wanted to do something to preserve her memory and continue the work she was so passionate about. To donate to the scholarship fund, please send a check in any amount to:


Acadia University U.S. Foundation
c/o Cassie Tremain
Office of Advancement
15 University Ave.
Wolfville, Nova Scotia, B4P 2R6
Canada

Donors will receive a little porcelain black bear, handmade by me. I love making animals almost as much as Emma loved studying them and preserving their habitats. Thank you.

Stephen

By Kate Rounds

Kara Hrabosky lives in a typically friendly Jersey City building, where tenants say hello as they pass one another in the hallways. They may not be best friends, but there’s a sense of community and shared experience.

The property is at the corner of John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Duncan Avenue; one of those neighbors was 24-year-old Stephen Andrew Clifford, who shared his apartment with roommates.

At 10 p.m. on Friday, April 19, 2013, Clifford was crossing the Boulevard at Fairmont Avenue when he was struck by a pickup truck driven by off-duty Jersey City Police Officer Michael Spolizino, who was 36 at the time. Spolizino was driving over 60 miles per hour in a 25 mile-per-hour zone. He was charged with speeding, careless driving, no vehicle inspection sticker, and failure to wear a seatbelt. Spolizino was acquitted of all charges.

Clifford, who had a degree in economics from Rutgers University and worked as a financial analyst in Manhattan, was walking home from a spaghetti dinner in preparation for running a half marathon.

He attended St. Aedan’s Church in Jersey City and was planning to sponsor his sister’s Confirmation. Family members say Clifford had a “lifetime” relationship with a long-term girlfriend.

Clifford was rushed to Jersey City Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 10:35 p.m.

Spurred to Act

This tragic incident prompted Hrabosky and another tenant, Paul Bellan-Boyer, to do something. “It hit home,” says Hrabosky, who is a marketing and communications professional in the financial-services industry. “It could happen on our block. It could have been any one of us. Kennedy is especially dangerous. We deal all the time every day with people who drive like maniacs. It’s a very challenging area, with turns and hills, past St. Peter’s to the Square. There have been a lot of fatalities over the years.”

“I love my city, and when people are killed and injured, it’s a major impact on the quality of life in the city,” added Bellan-Boyer. “There are human stories behind the numbers.”

Hrabosky and Bellan-Boyer, who is director of animal control for Jersey City, started a nonprofit called Safe Streets JC, which has a very active Facebook page, facebook.com/safestreetsjerseycity.

“A world-class city needs world-class traffic and pedestrian safety,” a statement on the page reads. “Safe Streets JC advocates for ZERO traffic fatalities in Jersey City.”

It’s a worthy goal. According to a post on the page, “In Hudson County, a county road rather than a state highway claimed the title of being the most deadly. County Route 501, also known as Kennedy Boulevard, had five fatal crashes in 2016, more than some of the bigger and busier toll roads and highways that crisscross the county.”

Protesters who appear at the group’s rallies carry signs with such messages as “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.”

The Three E’s

Most folks don’t realize that city and county law enforcement share jurisdiction over Kennedy Boulevard. In the summer of 2013, Hudson County Freeholder Bill O’Dea and county engineers were very receptive to making the Boulevard safer.

One goal of Safer Streets was to get funding to improve engineering on the roadway. It provided data from a road-safety audit to the county, so that it could apply for funding. Engineering enhancements take time; construction probably won’t start until later this year. “Meanwhile,” Hrabosky says, “the county implemented solutions that make sense.” These include changing the timing of the traffic lights, so there are fewer long stretches when drivers can speed, repaving, restripping, better markings at intersections, and bump-outs at curbs to shorten the crossing distance.

“Overall, engineering and enforcement are the key,” Hrabosky says, “and enforcement is dragging.”

Up until recently, city resources were not earmarked for street safety. Other important issues like drugs, crime, and gun violence took precedence. “This is a problem that has been hiding in plain sight for a long time, for decades,” Hrabosky says. “It’s a cultural problem in Jersey City. We need stronger citywide enforcement. Bayonne has a reputation for strong enforcement. One minute into Bayonne, and basically you can’t go more than 27 miles an hour.”

Fortunately, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop “is stepping up and leading on the issue,” Hrabosky says. “What got him engaged was the death of George Gonzalez.”

On Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, about 8:30 a.m., George was struck by a jitney bus at Kennedy Boulevard and Neptune Avenue on his way to school. He was rushed to Jersey City Medical Center, where he died. He was 11. The driver, Raul Delatoree-Galaza, was charged with causing a death while driving on a suspended license. At press time, he had not yet come up for trial.

The Gonzalez death was the third on Kennedy Boulevard in two and a half weeks. “It was back to back and awfully tragic, involving pedestrians and cyclists,” Hrabosky says. “Would enforcement have prevented them? There would certainly be a reduction with safer driving habits.”

On Speed

It’s not just Kennedy Boulevard that has a problem with speeding drivers. “Grand Street is a raceway,” Hrabosky says. She also cites Marin, pointing to drivers who cut through the city to get to the Holland Tunnel. With the Pulaski Skyway under construction and plans for a Jersey Avenue extension through Liberty State Park, she says things will only get worse.

George Gonzalez’s death was a catalyst for change. There was a walk for street safety, and Mayor Fulop came out to speak to the crowd. A public meeting in December 2016 drew about 120 residents, along with the mayor, public safety director, county representatives, the Hudson County sheriff, engineers, and Jersey City police.

The group asked the mayor to commit to a formal traffic safety unit citywide. There had never been one because the focus had been on drugs, gangs, and homicides.

A four-officer unit already in place issued more than 1,200 tickets in six weeks, which emboldened the group to ask the mayor for more resources and radar-equipped police cars. It also wanted the unit to patrol citywide, focusing on trouble spots targeted by residents and supported by data.

The group is aiming for Vision Zero, a Swedish initiative, implemented by New York City, which seeks zero traffic deaths within a prescribed period of time.

It’s No Accident

Anyone who’s tried to effect change knows that language is important. Hrabosky says that “accident” is not the right word to use in talking about traffic safety. “Crash” or “collision” is preferable. “‘Accident’ implies that there is no responsibility,” she says. Translation: Cars don’t cause crashes; people do. Cars can’t be killed; people can.—Kate Rounds

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