DECATUR – Keeping a child's memory alive can be a double-edged sword.
Yet some bereaved parents can't stop doing whatever they can to keep other families from experiencing the same horrific loss.
The parents of Matthew Yelovich and Anthony Samuelson, best friends killed by a drunken driver at age 24 six years ago, are one such example.
Others include Mike and Kathy Burkham, whose son Tyler Yount died of a heroin overdose five years ago at age 23, and Tim Reimer, whose son Joshua Reimer died from shaken baby syndrome in 1993 less than a month shy of his second birthday.
An annual Matthew and Tony Memorial Golf Outing at Decatur's South Side Country Club has raised $191,000 for seven high school chapters of Students Against Destructive Decisions, or SADD, in the Decatur area.
Two Overdose Awareness Days in Mount Zion's Fletcher Park have raised about $7,000 for the Tyler Yount Foundation to start a nalaxone distribution program and to give scholarships to successful graduates of Macon County's Hybrid Court. The first car show of the Facebook group Macon County Child Abuse Warriors, meanwhile, raised $1,000 this summer for the Macon County Child Advocacy Center.
The Yeloviches and Samuelsons say their first golf outing in 2009 was the hardest but that none has been easy.
“It's not a fun day for us,” Mike Yelovich said. “At the end of the day, when everybody hugs us, it makes it all worth it. So does believing we have saved at least one life and at least one family from having to go through what we did.”
Matthew Yelovich and Anthony Samuelson were rear-seat passengers in speeding sedan that went out of control on North Water Street, hit the back of a house on East Kellar Lane and spun violently back to the street Nov. 16, 2008. Both were killed, and the driver was sentenced to 10 years in prison for driving under the influence.
The most recent golf outing was July 14. The number of golfers participating has ranged from 175 to 200 over the years, but the two families say most of the money raised comes from sponsors. “We could use more,” Sandra Yelovich said.
The beneficiaries are SADD chapters at their son's high schools, Matthew graduated from Mount Zion and Anthony graduated from St. Teresa in 2002, as well as the school districts of Cerro Gordo, Lutheran School Association, Maroa-Forsyth, Meridian and Warrensburg-Latham districts.
The friends' elementary schools, Holy Family and Our Lady of Lourdes respectively, receive smaller sums.
Interestingly enough, Tony's sister Katie Boltz, 27, of Pana is a health teacher at Mount Zion High School and the school's SADD adviser.
“Besides the students, I think all the people who know what an impact that accident had our lives think things through a little more than they would have before,” Boltz said.
Herald & Review archives show an uptick in SADD activities, such as mock car crashes during prom season, since 2008.
“We gave $4,500 to each high school this year,” Mike Yelovich said. “We try to give enough for it to mean something.”
Although SADD receives the proceeds, Mike Yelovich said he believes the tragedy and annual fundraiser have changed the way grownups conduct their lives most of all.
For one thing, a tradition of free taxi rides on New Year's Eve began in Decatur in 2008 and continued at least through 2012.
For another, a friend of the two families has for several years has gone out to drive any young person home, no matter what the time of day or night, if he or she will only call. “Dave Perry is his name, and he has single-handedly made our mission come true,” Mike Yelovich said.
Steven and Sharon Samuelson of Decatur became friends with Mike and Sandra Yelovich of Mount Zion after their sons died.
“It seems to me that God needed two bright lights to make a statement here. Unfortunately for us, our boys got picked,” Steven Samuelson said. “To do nothing but sit around and mope, that isn't getting anything accomplished.”
“Giving is actually the thing that makes you feel better,” Sharon Samuelson added.
The Burkhams, who live in Mount Zion, feel the same way and forged ahead with their first Overdose Awareness Day in 2013 despite just having lost a second son in a car accident four years to the day after Tyler died.
Justin Yount, 28, apparently fell asleep at the wheel before his car ran off the road and struck an embankment.
“Instead of continuing to ask 'Why me?' and not get any answer, I say 'Why not me?” Kathy Burkham said. “I'm here for a purpose so no other family has to know the pain mine has known.
“It's very, very healing for me.”
This year's Overdose Awareness Day was Aug. 30 and drew more than 200 people for a 5K run/one-mile walk followed by a memorial service and balloon release.
Reimer of Decatur, on the other hand, said he tried to bury his grief over his son's death until he couldn't do it anymore.
He and other members of his Facebook group organized a car show at Four Star Restaurant and Diner in Mount Zion on Aug. 30 but plan to have the next one in April, during Child Abuse Prevention Month.
Reimer said what really makes his son's death hard to deal with is all the other cases of child abuse that are in the news and how many children have lost their lives.
Joshua's mother and her then-fiancé were each sentenced to 10 years in prison, her for second-degree murder and him for aggravated battery to a child.
“The positive aspect of doing the car show is that it helps bring back my son, his beautiful blue eyes and his smiling face,” Reimer said. “It makes me feel stronger to feel like you do have a voice, that if you see abuse, you can do something about it.”