Steamboat woman awarded for strength and will to move on after tragedy
Steamboat Springs — When it came time to suggest a punishment for the man who killed her husband in a car wreck, Terry Vande Velde sat down with her three children and asked for their thoughts.
They asked if the man had a family. He did, she told them.
The last thing the grieving family wanted was to separate other children from their father, so Terry Vande Velde submitted a letter to the judge requesting leniency. The judge read the letter in open court — a rare move, the judge said. In the letter, Vande Velde requested that the man whose out-of-control semi crashed into her husband’s car not be sent to jail, but perform community service by talking to other truckers about the importance of truck safety.
The driver had 17 violations noted on his semi truck, and he had decided against replacing the tires even though he had a new set available. When one of his front tires blew out on Interstate 70 near Denver on Oct. 12, 2004, he careened across the median and hit Russ Vande Velde’s Audi head-on. Russ Vande Velde died instantly.
Since that time, Terry Vande Velde has been trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in Steamboat Springs, for herself and her children. Her compassion and empathy did not escape the notice of her insurance agent, Debbie Aragon, and six years after the crash, Terry Vande Velde was awarded late last month a national State Farm 2010 Embrace Life award, including $10,000, for her “strength and the undeniable will to move on after a loss.”
“It’s probably the best thing I’ve been involved with in State Farm in all my years,” Aragon said.
Aragon submitted the application nominating Vande Velde, including a 1,000-word essay that essentially described Terry Vande Velde’s life since the crash that took away her husband and the father of her children.
Sitting in her living room with those same children in their home above the Rollingstone Ranch Golf Club last week, Terry Vande Velde said it was the family’s empathy that guided them through the loss.
“We had asked for the truck driver to do something good instead of sitting in jail,” she said. “Another person sitting in jail doesn’t help anyone.”
The driver also was required to perform extra community service, including helping the tornado victims on the Front Range in recent years.
“We just needed something good to come out of this tragedy,” Terry Vande Velde said.
When they learned the driver had a family, their decision was made that much easier.
“We didn’t want any other children to be without their dad because they knew what it felt like, and it’s not a good feeling,” Terry Vande Velde said.
While at the State Farm awards ceremony April 27 in Bloomington, Ill., Vande Velde and Aragon recorded video that will be sent out to State Farm agents across the country about the importance of life insurance, through the State Farm group or elsewhere.
Two of Vande Velde’s children, 14-year-old twins John and Nikki, have used their experience to help friends and classmates.
Several times thoughout the past years, when fellow students lost a classmate, Nikki and John were called in as peer counselors.
“I don’t feel comfortable when I talk to counselors who are older than me about it,” Nikki said as she explained why she stepped in. “When I’m talking to other kids my age, it’s easier to relate your feelings and relate to each other. You get so many friendships.”
Nikki and John Vande Velde hope to take their support further, to camps across the country, after they were asked to be counselors at camps for children who have lost parents. While at the State Farm awards ceremony, the family met another woman who received an award for her work in creating those camps.
The Vande Veldes have built a community of sorts of other local residents who have experienced the painful loss of a family member or close friend. The children who have lost parents spend time together, and they sometimes call one another for support during the anniversary of the loss.
Terry Vande Velde has a photo wall in her house with photos of grandparents and children, all surrounding a central photo of her husband.
“The only thing I ever wanted to do was to make Russ proud of us,” she said. “That’s what we’ve done to help honor his memory.”
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