“I’d like you to imagine the most important person in your life,” Cara Filler told the crowd in Gaither High School’s auditorium.
“With your eyes closed, imagine what your life would be without them.”
That’s how Filler began her talk during a motivational speaking appearance in front of Gaither’s senior class.
The most important person in Filler’s life was her twin sister, Mairin Johnston. But she died the day after they shared their 18th birthday, not long after they graduated from high school.
It was a car accident just three miles away from the mall where both had just been hired to work at a Disney store. Mairin left the mall with her boyfriend driving, allegedly hitting speeds of 110 mph in a 35-mph zone. He lost control of the car and crashed.
The boyfriend sustained some minor injuries. He paid a $150 speeding ticket and spent 15 days in jail. Mairin lost her life.
This was Filler’s best friend. The person who was going to be her maid of honor. The one who would be hanging out with her when they were in their 80s.
Now Filler shares her story through the “Drive to Save Lives” tour, talking about the importance of making smart choices to stay safe.
She made similar stops at Wharton and Steinbrenner high schools, too, which were among the 10 schools in Florida she visited to spread her message.
Students Against Destructive Decisions, better known as SADD, and the Florida Department of Transportation sponsored Filler’s appearances.
“FDOT, for the first time, has put teen safe driving as part of their strategic plan,” said Danielle Branciforte, SADD’s state coordinator. These kinds of presentations remind students “that there are consequences for every action,” Branciforte said.
At times during Filler’s hour-long talk, one could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. At other times, the place rocked with laughter. In the end, students gave Filler a standing ovation.
Many said they appreciated her candor, her humor and her practical advice.
Filler, who grew up in Vancouver, B.C., now lives north of Portland, Ore.
She travels around the country, coaxing audience members to keep themselves safe and avoid becoming statistics. She gives about 150 talks a year and has been doing that for 18 years.
“I can tell you the second my sister died,” said Filler, who was driving behind her sister and witnessed the crash. She could only watch as emergency workers at the scene were unable to save her. “She died because she made a bad choice.”
Filler said she continues to give the talks because she wants her sister’s death to have meaning.
“I’m sick and tired of car crashes being the No. 1 killer of youth,” Filler said. “I watched them rip the car apart to try to get my sister out. There was nothing they could do for her.”
While recounting her sister’s death was dramatic and poignant, Filler’s talk also painted a portrait of the joys and hassles of life as a twin.
She used self-deprecating humor to build connections with the audience, believing that if she can make the kids laugh, she can also make them listen.
Gaither principal Marie Whelan told students that she is always concerned about their safety, and she encouraged them to look out for themselves and their friends. She wants to see them walk across the stage on graduation day next June.
“I want you to be able to be that maid of honor or best man in your best friends’ weddings,” Whelan said. “I want you to be there for them, when their children are born and all of those special moments in life.”
Sharon Hall, program manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, knows too well the depth of Filler’s pain.
State troopers knocked at Hall’s door at 11 one night five years ago to tell her that her 26-year-old son, Louis B. Hall, was killed in a wreck on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. He was a passenger.
“The driver was speeding, and impaired, and lost control,” Hall said.
Some members of Gaither’s SADD chapter said they think Filler’s comments will hit home with their peers.
“I think she gave great tips on how to prevent accidents,” said Autumn Riedy, 17. “Every day teenagers go to parties and you can prevent stuff (from) happening.”
Brad Smith, 17, said he thinks Filler’s talk “really opened the eyes of a lot of students who think, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’
“We’re all going to college next year. This is a good message to keep in the back of your heads, to make good decisions. Sometimes just saying, ‘No,’ is all you have to say,” Smith said.
It’s also important to intervene, to help friends avoid foolish actions, Smith said.
“If you don’t say something and something happens, you’re going to regret it,” he said.
Distracted driving is a big issue, said Brittany French, 17.
“My dad is always telling me not to text and drive,” she said. “You’re looking down. You’re not really paying attention.”
French connected when Filler asked the crowd to imagine the person closest to them.
“Personally, mine would be my little sister,” French said. “She’s my everything. I couldn’t imagine my life without her.”
There are times when teenagers know it’s not safe to get in a car with friends, but might not know how to say no. Motivational speaker Cara Filler offers these four approaches:
• Don’t get in the car — There are always other options, Filler said.
• If you’re already in a car, and it’s dangerous, get out of the car — “Speak up for yourself,” Filler said. “My sister didn’t. That’s why she’s dead.”
• Lie if you have to — “Tell the driver you have to pee,” Filler said. Or tell the driver “you think you’re going to puke.”
• Call your parents — Not popular, Filler said, but it’s a move that can save lives.
Teenagers not driving can also volunteer to be the “designated texter,” to make sure the driver doesn’t do that.
And if all else fails? “Hide the car keys,” Filler said.
— B.C. Manion