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South Jersey family to honor slain daughter with nationwide cause

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It was unlike any other day on that fateful Saturday of April 15th, 2012.  

Mike Kellenyi and his daughter Nikki had sat down and enjoyed a Saturday morning breakfast, something they had not been able to do in a while.  Nikki and her father laughed and chatted while Nikki used a spoon to “eat” her chocolate milk. Her bright white smile shining as she laughed and joked with her father.  Her smile was contagious.  She surely blossomed from the shy little girl to the outgoing senior about to graduate high school.   Nikki Kellenyi

Nikki was consistently on the "Principal's List Roster" for earning all A's. She was named Student of the Month many times throughout her high school career and was part of the DECA program.  She was on the National Honor Society for business, an extremely selective program.  Nikki played basketball for Washington Twp. Parks & Recreation. She brought home many trophies and was awarded MVP at the 2007 Championship Game.  Nikki danced privately and also for the Washington Twp. Dance Team. She was strong at gymnastics and was also a cheerleader for Washington Twp. High School.  As accomplished as Nikki was, you would never know of her awards because she was so humble.  

Mike Kellenyi draws me into the hours before Nikki was taken from him, his wife and her sister.  I find myself holding my own tears back as he begins.  

“The family had just gotten iPhones earlier that day after Nikki had just accepted an offer to attend Rider University for a major in accounting.  Nikki was bouncing from each of our laps showing us how to use it.  I remember how wonderful that day was because for the first time in a long time we had these two hours with the entire family of having nothing to do, but spend time with one another.”  

Afterwards, Nikki left to venture out to a high school party.

“I remember telling her goodbye, I love you and to be safe,” Kellenyi recalled.

Shortly before midnight, The Kellenyi family received the phone call that Mike wishes no parent will ever have to receive.

“My wife had heard the helicopters flying overhead and was calling Nikki and began to panic as she was not answering her phone.  That’s when the house phone rang which was very unusual as everyone calls our cell phones.  It was the neighbor telling us Nikki was in an accident about a mile from our home.”

It was later that evening after racing to the crash site (only to be steered to the hospital) that the Kellenyi’s would have their worst fears confirmed.  Nikki had been in the backseat of the 1998 Dodge Neon with two other friends when the driver of the Neon, Nikki’s friend, was texting her boyfriend and drove through the intersection without stopping and was hit by another vehicle.  

Nikki’s other friend (who was in the passenger seat) was ejected from the vehicle and sustained quite a few injuries.  Nikki was trapped inside the vehicle, still alive, where after about forty minutes of being trapped, was finally freed and later passed of internal injuries.  The driver texting sustained no injuries.

The pain is deep inside Mike’s eyes as he begins to tell me that the driver must have accidently hit the call button when the impact happened. She was texting her boyfriend at the time when the boyfriend’s voicemail recorded a very chilling series of events- which included screeching of tires, glass breaking, the driver screaming for her phone, the passenger who was ejected painfully screaming along with Nikki in the backseat begging for help.

Mike admits he cannot fully listen to the voicemail and I can’t blame him.  As a parent of four, I would not want to hear those final moments.  It’s painful to hear Mike describe these events.  I find myself filling with such emotion and I’m hurting so much from just the telling of the story- so imagine how the family who had to bury their eighteen-year-old daughter just weeks before her graduation and prom feels?

Nikki now rests in her senior prom gown that she was happily looking forward to attending.  The line wrapped around the church for blocks as thousands attended her funeral.  The color purple, which was Nikki’s favorite, clothed mourners rather than the traditional black.  

One day, while standing at Nikki’s grave, Mike and his wife decided that they would not let their daughter die in vain.  They saw this as a mission.  A mission to end distracted driving.  That was the moment when Nikki’s spirit would live on forever in PADD: People Against Distracted Driving.  PADD has become a nation-wide organization whose mission is to educate and create awareness to stop people from distracted driving- whether it applies to texting or talking on the phone while driving.  Currently, PADD is donating “Stay Alive Don't Text and Drive" signs to schools and towns, installing them along significant roadsides, billboards, businesses, school exits, park exits and anywhere they will impact motorists.  

In addition to PADD, The Kellenyi’s are working with congressmen in getting “Nikki’s Law” passed.  “Nikki’s law” would require appropriate signage and variable message signs to warn against distracted driving.  So many laws are being passed to handle the punishment of a distracted driver that Mike Kellenyi wanted a more proactive approach by getting a law passed that would require significant warnings and education for motorists about the dangers of distracted driving.

I can honestly say that I truly was not prepared for how this interview would affect me.  As I sat across from Nikki’s father as we spoke about his daughter, her death and his mission, he exuberated immense strength during my difficult questions that took him back to that fateful day.  

“It’s a part of my life now,” Kellenyi says.  “It’s sad, but my life is now telling people how my daughter died in hopes to make a difference.”  

That pain is indescribable no matter how I try to put it into words.  We will never truly know what this father, mother and sister feel.  Their loved one was taken from them by her own friend who couldn’t put down a cell phone.  I admitted to Mike that before Nikki’s story reached me, I too was guilty of texting while driving.  I now look down at my purple PADD bracelet and realize I need to make a difference as well.  Every time my phone beeps while driving, Nikki’s beautiful smile flashes into my mind and I don’t even think of touching that phone.  By doing this, I am setting the example for my children.  What if that one time I reach for the phone, I take a child, a mother, a father or a loved one from someone?

I urge all my readers to head to http://www.nikkisfoundation.org/index.php/homepage to read more on Nikki, PADD and Nikki’s Law and to take the pledge to see how you can help end distracted driving.  Nikki was bound to change the world and she is doing so through the efforts of one amazing family.  To the Kellenyi family and to all of Philly2Philly.com, I take this public pledge to never text/talk and drive and instill this same importance to my children and all those around me.

I’m doing this in honor of Nikki.

Karen Stebbins is a mom of four and wife of a loving husband who shares her love of sports (or else she wouldnt have said yes). Karen is an experienced paralegal and freelance writer on a variety of topics. Sports is her passion and her love of the game is undeniable.


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