Forgiving and forgetting are on two separate roads traveling in opposite directions for Kim and Danny Ledford, whose only son, Dustin Ledford, died in a two-vehicle crash on APD 40 July 10, 2010.
Dustin’s car was hit by an impaired driver going the wrong way. Dustin died in the hospital later that night. So did a part of his parents. The loss is something the Cleveland couple says they can never forget. But Kim has been working through the hurt and anger, realizing that forgiveness is the fastest road to recovery, something her faith is helping her find on a daily basis.
In a recent conversation filled with raw emotions, Kim said she is satisfied with the progress she is currently making from an emotional standpoint, though she admitted, “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the wreck, about Dustin and that I don’t have anger. Emotionally, it still hurts. But it is a different hurt than it was two years ago. God’s grace is new every morning. Because of that I am able to get out of bed and function. Every day I have to forgive. Under the circumstances I think I have done remarkably well.”
As far as the progress made in passing House Bill 1038, informally known as “Dustin’s Law,” — a bill that passed through the House Judiciary Committee and was referred to the House, Finance, Ways & Means Committee where it has been stuck in subcommittee since May 2011 — Kim confessed, “I know it takes time to get a law passed. As a mother I want it done right now. It’s hard for me to sit back and let the legislative process take place. I want ‘Dustin’s Law’ in place to let people know there will be tougher consequences for their actions when they choose to drive impaired and kill someone. Then maybe they’ll stop and think about it before they get behind a wheel intoxicated.”
Kim said for her own emotional well-being she had to forgive the woman behind the wheel of the vehicle that resulted in her son’s death, explaining, “I am a Christian. I had to forgive because Christ forgave me. And I don’t want that root of bitterness to eat me alive. I’m not going to live the rest of my life hating her and letting that bitterness swell up inside of me. I have things to do with the rest of my life. I can’t do anything to bring Dustin back. But I can do this for Dustin. I went to the (Bradley County) Justice Center to see her right before she was transferred to Nashville (State Prison) and I told her I forgave her. She was really apologetic at that point. She also told me that she wants to use this opportunity to tell her story while she is in prison. She said when she gets out she wants to speak to groups about the dangers of drinking and driving.”
Emotions got the better of Kim as she reflected on that moment and hearing those words, especially since she herself has since become an advocate, speaking to victim impact panels and other groups across the region about the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“That’s one of the things I do — at least one third of each month,” she said, wiping away tears. “I think if she and I spoke together we could make an impact. That is my prayer. That she and I can one day be able to put this behind us and turn it around for good. To be able to change the lives of some people and show that there is healing, forgiveness and you can move on out of the worse hurt anyone can imagine.”
Nearing the anniversary of Dustin’s death, his parents said they want the public to know how much their family appreciates the community’s support. They also acknowledged the loss of other youths in Cleveland due to traffic fatalities.
“There has been so much hurt in Cleveland,” Kim said. “Since Dustin’s death — the loss of life among young people here has been great. Last summer alone we counted about six or seven deaths from June to August. But we can heal and we can forgive with God’s help. It can be done.”
For anyone who would consider getting behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, Kim said, “I would encourage people to have a plan before they go out and start drinking. Because once you’re at that point you don’t realize your judgment is impaired. You have to make that decision while you still have a sound mind. Vehicular homicide by intoxication is the most preventable crime there is, because you are choosing to get behind the wheel. Don’t do it.”
Kim and her husband, Danny, are unwavering in their mission to have a bill pass that would lessen the requirements for meeting the legal definition of aggravated vehicular homicide. Passing “Dustin’s Law” would thereby remove the requirement of having a prior DUI conviction and a blood alcohol content of .2 percent to meet the standard for aggravated vehicular homicide.
Dustin’s parents have also established a scholarship in his name to benefit each year a student-athlete from each of the three high schools in Cleveland and Bradley County. It will be awarded to a senior going to the college of his or her choice. It is called the Dustin Ledford Live Wide Open Scholarship. Kim and Danny are holding several fundraisers to raise funds for the scholarship.
“Dustin was loved by the community,” Kim said. “He was the light of our lives. We will always love him. Forgiveness does not mean we don’t love our son. It doesn’t mean we’ll ever forget what happened. But you have to forgive to start to heal. And you have to forgive before you can move on. I speak at victim impact panels and to [high school] seniors before their proms because I want to get the word out. I can’t give Dustin Christmas and birthday presents anymore. But I can do this for Dustin. I can honor his memory by doing what I do. Hopefully, somewhere down the road this will make an impact on someone who was going to get behind the wheel and drink. Maybe somehow I can keep a family from going through what we’ve gone through for the past 24 months.”
(Editor’s note: See Page 30 for Dustin Ledford Scholarship events.)