Erin Lawler understands the pain that comes from bad decisions all too well.
A drunken driver on the Outer Banks in North Carolina killed her younger sister, Shana, and three other local girls from the Lenape Regional High School District in an accident in April 1999.
Lawler is now a substance awareness coordinator at Seneca High School, a career path that emerged after the tragic accident.
“My heart is focused on keeping the message alive,” she said.
Lawler is coordinating the 14th Annual Precious Gems 5K Memorial Run on April 28 at 9 a.m. at Seneca High School.
Racing for Better Decisions
The pre-registration deadline for the run is Thursday, April 21 and it costs $12 for students and $15 for adults to participate.
Hopeful participants can also sign up the day of the run between 8 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. Students will pay $15 and adult tickets cost $20.
At 9:10 a.m., a 1.5-mile fun run — or walk — will also be held.
According to Lawler, the run is a rain or shine event that will scale the perimeter of the school and end on the track.
The school has posted road signs to advertise the run to the community. Many of the participants are students affiliated with Seneca High School, but “we do have a significant number of members from the community,” she said.
About 300 people attended last year’s run.
Community involvement over the years has increased, she said, “which is usually the opposite with time.”
This, to Lawler, is impressive and encouraging.
All proceeds from the event will be used for preventative programs for Seneca students and scholarships, Lawler said.
“I get excited that the money we raise goes to our kids,” she said. “We do some really neat, amazing things in this building.”
The reason for the run has evolved over time, she explained.
“It began in memory of the girls, but it’s blossomed into something much more than that,” she said.
Nowadays, the Precious Gems, the name given to the four girls who lost their lives, are a symbol of the power of decision-making, Lawler explained.
“They didn’t have a decision to be made, they had the decision made for them.”
One bad choice
“It was early afternoon. My family, in August, had actually moved down to the outer banks from Medford,” Lawler said.
Shana’s friends had taken a bus “to spend the latter part of break with Shana and my family.”
“The morning that this happened, Shana actually was at work,” Lawler said.
Megan Blong, Amanda Geiger, Angela McGrady and Mike Horner headed out to pick her up from work for a day at the beach.
They were in the third in a line of cars, trying to make a left turn on to a main bypass.
As they made their turn, their car was T-boned at the speed of 65 mph by Melissa Marvin, a drunken driver, whom she says made no attempts to brake.
“That day, Megan, Angela and Amanda were killed,” she said. “Shana held on for six days.”
Horner sustained serious injuries but survived. These days, he is doing well, said Lawler, and living in Philadelphia.
Marvin is living in prison under a 65-year sentence “and rightfully so,” Lawler said.
“She killed four people. She took four lives,” Lawler said. “My sister and the three kids had no say in that.”
There needs to be more accountability and consistency in the legal system, she said.
“There are four crosses on the side of the road that are four daughters, four sisters, four friends,” she said. “There’s no anger in my heart, but to me, there has to be accountability.”
Many of the crosses, though not all, on the side of roads express deaths caused by drugs or alcohol, she said.
Lawler challenges the community and students: “Think about what you do.”
Connecting words with actions is important, she said.
She runs the anti-drug squad, where she teaches students to make a difference in their communities and become role models.
On April 20, she will chat with juniors in their health classes about making wholesome decisions in the hopes of showing how her own outlook on life was severely shifted from one person’s faulty thoughts — and one person’s decision to get behind the wheel while drunk.
“It’s not an easy thing to do,” she said. “It’s very personal. We have an opportunity to really get in the kids’ hearts and challenge them in a way that’s pretty unique and dynamic and hopefully long-term.”
The parents of the Precious Gems have brought their voices into the community over the years, as well.
“A number of the parents are still involved in terms of public speaking,” she said.
Some of the parents are still involved with the legal system and sit in courtrooms, she explained.
They attend juvenile justice system presentations and visit the Center for Mindful Living and Trauma Recovery in Moorestown.
Up until a few years ago, the parents would also present in area high schools and middle schools, but over time, the task became too emotionally draining, she said.
Lawler hopes to keep the annual run going and teach her students to speak up and have voices.
“Life is fragile,” she said. “We don’t have control of everything of course, but a lot of it comes down to decisions we make.”
How You Can Help
• Visit the Precious Gems Memorial website to learn more at www.preciousgemsmemorial.com.
• Send donations to Seneca High School in care of the Precious Gems in Erin Lawler’s name.
• View more information about the run on Seneca’s website at www.lrhsd.org/seneca.
• To speak with Lawler, call (609) 268–4600, ext. 6678, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.