Helen Witty still lives in the house her father built in the Pinecrest neighborhood, the only home she has known since she was 18 months old. The home she shared with husband John, and their children Helen Marie and John Jr.
When Helen Marie was a toddler, about the same age her mother was when she moved into that home, Witty, now 66, took a Miami Herald columnist inside to show the Christmas creches her mother, the late activist Crutcher Harrison, had amassed.
“It is so wonderful, being able to bring my daughter back to the same house I lived in all my life,” Witty told the Herald’s Bea Hines in 1985.
Today, Witty brings her daughter’s memory, and a powerful message, to the national stage.
Witty was appointed the new national president for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She joined MADD in 2000, the same year her daughter Helen Marie, an honors student sophomore at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, was killed by a drunk driver.
Helen Marie was 16.
She was on her Rollerblades on the Pinecrest bike path when she saw the new Audi driven by 17-year-old Carla Wagner heading toward her. Wagner had just finished her junior year at nearby Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove. Wagner was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana when she plowed into the young Witty.
Wagner was in a car with friends, driving about 60 mph in a 30 mph zone, and toasted on tequila shots when she glanced at her cellphone and veered off the road. Wagner was imprisoned and then deported to her native Panama in 2006.
It took Witty more than 10 years to think of her daughter “without pain,” she told the Herald in 2011.
Since that June day in 2000, there have been walks for Witty to raise awareness and to raise money for a scholarship that was set up in Witty´s name at Palmetto. And there has been a mother and a family’s tireless quest to do whatever they can to spare others from going through what they did more than 18 years ago.
“Since the unimaginable loss of her daughter, Helen Marie, Helen has devoted her life to stopping this 100 percent preventable crime,” MADD’s interim CEO and Chief Operating Officer Vicki Knox said in a release. “A compassionate listener and powerful storyteller, she has spent 18 years championing MADD’s mission to fight drugged driving and end drunk driving.”
Witty, who has worked at Delta Air Lines and as a college adviser at Miami-Dade Public Schools, has proven inexhaustible in her mission.
For example, in March 2018, she spearheaded the Walk Like MADD/MADD Dash at Tropical Park in honor of Bryan Crialles, who crossed the finish line at the event two years after he, his mom Elisa Diaz and sister Carmen Crialles were hit head-on in their car by a drunk driver going the wrong way on I-95. Carmen was killed, and Bryan and his mother were seriously injured. Bryan remains in a wheelchair.
After cyclist Aaron Cohen was hit and killed on the Rickenbacker Causeway by a drunk driver who left the scene in 2012, Witty worked alongside Cohen’s family and other local leaders to help get the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act passed by the Florida Senate in 2014.
“I landed in MADD’s capable lap, completely shattered,” Witty said in Wednesday’s news release. “I cherish the opportunity to comfort those so deeply impacted by the crime of impaired driving, to listen to their stories and give the empathy and encouragement I received. It is our stories that hold the power and unite us.”
As president, MADD says that Witty, who has been a volunteer victim advocate and Miami staffer with MADD, will serve as national spokesperson and chief advocate for the organization. She succeeds Colleen Sheehey who has served as MADD’s national president for four years.
MADD grew from a grassroots movement begun in California in September 1980 by Candace Lightner after her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver.
MADD is in every state and also in Canada.
“It is an honor to join the courageous voices who have used their passion to further MADD’s mission toward a future of No More Victims,” Witty said.
Witty’s national presidency will become effective on Jan. 1.