Vijay Dixit vividly recalls the day his daughter, Shreya, got her driver's license. It was her 16th birthday, and after she passed her test, she ran out to meet him, waving her card.
"I got it!" she said.
"You got your license?" asked her father.
"No," she said, "I'm an organ donor."
It was typical of Shreya to be more excited about the potential to help someone than about her own good fortunes. Tragically, she got the opportunity a few years later.
Shreya was killed in 2007 when her friend crashed her vehicle while returning home from Madison, where they were students at the University of Wisconsin. The driver had turned around to get a napkin in the back seat and smashed the right front of the SUV into the pillar of an overpass. Shreya died; the driver and two other passengers walked away.
To this day, Vijay, his wife, Rekha, and daughter Nayha Dixit remain traumatized by Shreya's death. Vijay and Rekha continue to see a grief counselor every Friday, and they've turned a former vegetable garden behind their Eden Prairie home into a shrine, of sorts, to Shreya.
On a rainy day this week, Vijay Dixit stepped through mud to show me the large "S" they made out of purple petunias in Shreya's honor.
"Shreya helped my wife with the vegetable garden, so the year after she died, my wife could not bear to do it alone," said Dixit. "This is our personal way of grieving. We have been working to put our grief into something more meaningful."
Since Shreya's death, in fact, the Dixits have become local and even national champions on the cause of distracted driving. This Saturday, they will hold the fourth annual 5K Raksha Walk (www.shreyadixit.org) to honor their younger daughter and bring attention to the issue, which they say is getting worse because of the increased use of technology by drivers. This year, a companion walk will also be held in Connecticut, where Shreya lived as a child.
Dixit is so committed to reducing distracted driving that he's cut back on his job as a systems analyst so that he can devote at least one day a week to the cause. Last Friday, he spoke to two groups of young drivers through a program for the American Automobile Association. He visits schools and talks about how a moment of distraction can ruin lives. He has worked with politicians, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., on legislation to stiffen penalties for distracted driving, and his foundation gives out two $1,500 college scholarships based on competitive essays, art projects or volunteer work on the issue. He also talks to corporations about how to help employees who have lost family members. "The employee may look the same, but everything inside them has changed," said Dixit. "For everyone else at work, life moves on; for us, it's come to a standstill."
The Dixits hope to do for the issue what Patty Wetterling has done for missing children and Susan G. Komen has done for breast cancer.
While almost no one gets in a car without a seatbelt anymore because of education and stricter laws, distracted driving is not getting traction; "in fact, it's getting worse," said Dixit.
And while he thinks stricter laws akin to those for drunken driving are needed, recent laws about texting may have made things worse because now drivers are trying to hide their phones while doing it.
"It has to be considered more serious than a $100 ticket," he said. "It has to be a penalty big enough to get people's attention. Studies have shown that people lose 33 percent of their cognitive skills when distracted; that's about the same as someone who is drunk. Why aren't the penalties more equal?"
Vijay's enthusiasm for spreading the message "is absolutely tireless," said Eden Prairie Police Chief Rob Reynolds. "Even after such a tragedy, he keeps that message so positive. The Dixits have a passion for it and it has not relented."
Meanwhile, the Dixits must be content with what Shreya accomplished in her short life. She helped homeless kids with homework at Mary's Place, volunteered with the Red Cross after the Minneapolis bridge collapse and gave her time to a church that she didn't even belong to.
After she died, her organs indeed helped several injured people. The Dixits have spread Shreya's ashes in various places that were meaningful to her, including India.
"We want her to be everywhere," said Dixit.
(The walk is this Saturday at 9 a.m., starting at Purgatory Creek Park in Eden Prairie.)
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