Beneath a dresser in Colleen Sheehey-Church’s home sits a pair of worn, tan Birkenstock® sandals. They’re not hers, and she’ll never wear them. But she’ll never throw them out, either. That’s because every time she sees the shoes, she has the opportunity to remember her son. “For my son, there are no more graduations,” says Sheehey-Church, who lives with her husband, Skip, in Madison, Connecticut. “There’s not going to be a wedding. He didn’t have a chance to do what he wanted to do with his life because someone else made a bad choice.”
In 2004, Sheehey-Church’s 18-year-old son Dustin was the passenger in a car being driven by another teenager who was under the influence of drugs and alcohol. What should have been an uneventful late-night pizza run ended in a speeding car losing control, hitting an embankment and crashing into a Connecticut river.
The driver and another passenger in the front seat survived. Dustin, in the backseat of the two-door vehicle, was unable to escape.
“You live with wondering about the last 10 minutes of his life,” Sheehey-Church says. “Did he break his neck? Did he hit his head? He didn’t. When you know that the death was a violent death, that you couldn’t have two minutes to stroke his cheek or give him a kiss goodbye, that’s something that you live with for a very long time.”
“We had to turn that grief into some sort of action, and that action ended up being, ‘What can I do to help advance what we do at MADD?’” says Sheehey-Church.
She and her husband soon started volunteering for their local MADD chapter. For a year, she helped answer calls to the 24-Hour Victim Help Line. Talking to others who had experienced the same pain and heartbreak “was one of the best things for myself that I ever did,” she says.
It’s a career change she never wanted but one she appreciates each time she is able to help another victim feel empowered in the fight to end drunk driving.
“I met a gentleman who was new to MADD, and I asked him to tell me his story,” says Sheehey-Church. “All he had to do was pull out a picture of two daughters, 16 and 17, who died in a drunk-driving crash not even a year ago. My mouth dropped to the floor. I know for myself, I couldn’t walk and talk a year after. But this gentleman is actively taking part in testimonies, in legislation, and talking about his girls.”
– Colleen Sheehey-Church, BSM ‘10
Prior to her work with MADD, Sheehey-Church built a career as a senior sales and training consultant for companies such as FranklinCovey and AT&T. When she graduated from high school in 1974, women were encouraged to go to work, not to college. So she got a job. And then came other responsibilities, such as caring for her aging mother and becoming a mother herself. But Sheehey-Church realized that to advance in her career, she needed to have more than a high school diploma.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for on-the-job training, but there’s a lot to be said for higher education and getting to the instructors who can help students really hone the skills that they’re interested in,” she says.
In 2001, she enrolled in University of Phoenix®, which allowed her to continue working full time while pursuing her degree. Sheehey-Church admits she was quite nervous about going back to school after so many years, but meeting fellow students in her same position calmed her fears and gave her the support network she needed.
Achieving her degree took longer than she expected. When Dustin died in 2004, it was several years before she could go back and finish her credits. But in 2010, Sheehey-Church received her Bachelor of Science in Business Management. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Christian counseling and psychology.
“I remember getting that degree and seeing it in my hand, and it was like, ‘Oh heavens, 20-something years later, I did it,’” says Sheehey-Church.
Editor’s note: MADD helps victims of drunk and drugged driving—survivors and the loved ones of those who died—through its 24-hour help line: 877-MADD-HELP. Online chat with a trained volunteer is also available through MADD’s website, www.madd.org.
For gainful employment information, including on-time completion rates, the median debt incurred by students who completed the program and other important information, please visit phoenix.edu/programs/gainful-employment.html.