Memorial service to honor Joseph Allen, `a good soul'

Helping: The Columbia resident, who battled depression and disability from a traffic accident, is remembered for his work in speaking to young people.

November 19, 1999|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

During six years that Joseph Allen described as mostly darkness, speaking to Howard County students about the dangers of drinking and driving was a patch of sunlight.

Allen, who lived with physical disability, depression and frustration after his car was struck by a drunken driver in 1993, would brighten when he helped students understand the dangers of mixing alcohol and automobiles, his friends remember.

"Joe's voice was very slurred, but [during a presentation] there was so much intensity in the room to listen to what he said," said Debbie Derwart, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Howard County.

"I think it actually touched down with people," said Joe Reiter, a 1999 graduate of Wilde Lake High School, who heard Allen speak.

Reiter said it was "one of the more memorable parts of school" and more effective than "a time-wasting assembly."

Allen was 26 when he fatally shot himself in August while visiting his parents in Union, W.Va.

Heather D'Amore of Columbia, a close friend who joined him in visits to at least nine high schools and middle schools, said his story can still help others.

D'Amore plans to continue his mission by sharing her stories about Allen and showing a videotape of him during his recovery.

She also is organizing a memorial service tomorrow in Columbia and is raising funds in his honor to support school programs on disability awareness and the dangers of drinking and driving. Another of her goals is to place a memorial bench for him in Centennial Park.

Allen was studying environmental science in his third year at West Virginia University when his life was dramatically altered.

He and three friends were traveling to Virginia Beach, Va., on Thanksgiving break when a truck struck their vehicle, killing two male friends and seriously injuring Allen and a female friend.

D'Amore and her family befriended him while visiting her mother in the Virginia Beach hospital where Allen was a patient.

A complementary health care provider, D'Amore gave him massage therapy and kept him company while he was in a coma. When he emerged from the coma, he told her he had been aware of her presence and kindness.

More than two years ago, Allen began staying with the D'Amore family to be closer to medical resources in Maryland. Later, he rented a room in a townhouse they own across the street in Harper's Choice.

D'Amore keeps a letter from Allen's parents that described him before the accident as an honors student and poet who loved the outdoors.

Allen did not return to West Virginia University after the accident, but he took several classes at Howard Community College.

He struggled with the reality that his life would never be the same, she said. After years of therapy, he still walked unsteadily and had difficulty speaking. He battled clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which left him emotionally disconnected.

D'Amore said he often was depressed and attempted suicide several times. But she also remembered the times he was funny and laughed a lot. "Sometimes he was so full of life, and sometimes he couldn't even hold a conversation," she said.

In 1996, D'Amore, then a member of the Harper's Choice Village Board, sought out substance abuse education opportunities to help Allen realize his life had meaning and purpose.

Debbi Lange, then a health-education teacher at Mayfield Woods Middle School, invited Allen to speak to her seventh- and eighth-grade classes, to a PTA function and to a boys mentoring program.

"He encouraged young people to really think about decision-making in all walks of life," said Lange, who now teaches physical education at Lime Kiln Middle School. "He never really passed judgment on the person who hit him. He really helped [students] to see you have to look at yourself and overcome your obstacles. Blame is not the answer."

Lange said he asked students to be considerate of people with disabilities, pointing out that his speech and the way he walked gave others the incorrect impression that he couldn't think clearly.

"Something we run into constantly, especially with high-schoolers, is they think: `This won't happen to me,' " said Nancy Hoffman, administrator of the Howard MADD chapter. Seeing what happened to Allen, who was close to his audience's age, "really does sink in a lot more," she said.

In December 1997, MADD Howard County presented Allen a Heartfelt Award for his efforts to educate young people, and the county gave him its Success Through Collaboration Award.

D'Amore said Allen would sometimes be withdrawn and sad when a school presentation started, but would jump in to correct her when he thought she was telling his story incorrectly. He then would open up to students.

"There were times he was in a lot of pain and discomfort, but he still packed up and went [to presentations]," said Derwart, the MADD Howard County president. "It's tough when you hurt that much to go on and walk through life. He was a good soul."

"I remember Joe having the ability to get kids to listen to him and think," Lange said. "That is a major objective in our schools. It's one of his greatest achievements."

The public is invited pay tribute to Allen at a memorial service at 2: 30 p.m. tomorrow at Pavilion D in Centennial Park.

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