Meagan Napier and her best friend, Lisa Jo Dickson, were driving to Meagan’s home after an outing in Pensacola, FL on May 11, 2002. They never reached their destination.
Around 2:30 that morning (the day before Mother’s Day), a drunk driver hit the car Dickson was driving and rammed it into a tree. Both of the 20-year-old women were killed instantly. The 24-year-old drunk driver who caused the crash, Eric Smallridge, was eventually found guilty of DUI manslaughter (Driving Under the Influence of drugs or alcohol) and sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Unlike many too-often-repeated drunk driving crashes that result in deaths, the sentencing in this case was not the end of the story. In fact, it was just the beginning of an amazing story of commitment, forgiveness and lives saved. Please read on.
Shortly after Smallridge was sentenced, Meagan Napier’s heart-broken mother, Renee, made a commitment that something positive would result from the deaths of her daughter and her daughter’s friend Lisa.
So Renee began traveling to schools in her community to warn students about the dangers of drunk driving. As word of her compelling DUI presentations spread, she began receiving speaking requests from groups outside Pensacola and soon her part-time local commitment turned into a full-time nation-wide educational mission to prevent more unnecessary death’s like Meagan’s.
Still, as speaking engagements consumed more and more of her time, Renee felt there was something missing. She decided to visit the imprisoned man who was responsible for her daughter’s death. That initial meeting with Eric turned into a second meeting, and a third, and many more after that. What Renee discovered during those visits was that Eric was not the monster she had been imagining but was just like so many other hurt people who try to drown their anger and resentment in alcohol, in drugs, or whatever make-it-feel-good vice is available to them.
At the same time, Renee began learning about the healing power of forgiveness and eventually she forgave Eric–not because she felt sorry for him, but because she needed to release the pent-up anger and emotions in her own heart and mind that were taking their toll on her health and well-being.
“I could be angry, hateful and bitter,” Renee says. “But I didn’t want to live my life that way. There was no way I could move on and live a happy life without forgiving Eric.”
Renee said that prior to finding the courage to forgive Eric, she felt like she was the one in prison and that forgiveness “freed me from the darkest place I have ever been.”
Not only did Renee forgive Eric, she even approached the judge who had sentenced him to prison. Through a series of meetings and petitions (and with the strong support of the Dickson family), she somehow convinced the judge to cut Eric’s sentence in half–from 22-years to just 11 years–and to allow Eric to join her (bound by shackles and handcuffs) on many of her DUI presentations in order to also share his powerful testimony.
Even though Renee has forgiven him, Eric says he doesn’t know if he will ever be able to forgive himself. He says he is certain, however, that he will not drink alcohol ever again. Still on probation, Eric works at a Goodwill store and as a personal trainer. His mother serves as his unofficial chauffeur because his driver’s license, of course, was revoked.
“I was so selfish because I never considered what effect drinking and driving could have on someone other than me,” Eric tells audiences. “I made a bad decision, and now two young people are dead because of it.”
Though they admit that their relationship may confuse many, Renee and Eric agree that sharing their life-saving cause has helped them heal. They conclude each presentation with a compelling embrace.
Renee, who has become an award-winning speaker, is also the Founder and President of The Meagan Napier Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization formed for two purposes: 1) to raise awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol; and, 2) to promote forgiveness and healing. It operates under the banner of “Promoting Forgiveness • Mending Hearts • Saving Lives.”
“We live in a world with a lot of pain and heartache,” Renee says. “I want to promote love and forgiveness and help break that cycle of hatred.”
- Read more about Renee’s story.
- Read more about Eric’s story.
- Read more about Meagan’s story.
- Learn about the International Forgiveness Institute’s Safe Driving Campaign.