Shannon Bird’s brother Les Rappe died in a car accident in Nikiksi in 2008. His seatbelt wasn’t buckled, a detail Bird was unaware of until this summer.
This year, Bird determined to mold a positive outcome from her family’s hardship.
“We can take our negative life experiences and let it ruin us and our families, or we can turn it into something positive,” Bird said. “… I am not comfortable with public speaking at all, but…sharing my brother’s story in hopes to save lives will be the greatest gift of all. The troopers told my mom (Lori Peikert) that my brother would’ve more than likely only had a broken leg if he had been wearing his seat belt.”
The new information fueled her decision to revive the Les Rappe Memorial Scholarship Fund, started in 2012 by residents of the Nikiski Senior Center, which she plans to leverage into community education on the importance of safe driving. The issue is simply pressing and not discussed enough, she said.
The scholarship’s first fundraiser came together in the form of family-sponsored 5-kilometer run Aug. 15, which “was so much more than a 5K,” Bird said. Memorial t-shirts were made for the 84 community members that turned out in the rain and chill for the event that yielded $1,000 for the scholarship, Bird said.
“To be honest, I was extremely nervous about the whole thing, what if the weather turned bad? What if no one showed up?” Bird said. “I was standing in the parking lot of the North Peninsula Recreation Center around 9:30 a.m. and there were only about 15 people, then it was like the flood gates opened and everyone started to show.”
Prior to the run, Bird and her two children — Kelsey, who “was Les’s world…and 7 years old when he passed” and Kameron, who was born 10 days after his uncle’s accident — thoroughly researched seat belt statistics and made posters to hang along the route. The information was quite humbling, she said. “Seat belts reduce serious-crash related injuries and deaths by about half,” according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rappe, who was 25 when he died, worked as a heavy equipment operator. He was returning to work on the afternoon of July 14, 2008, the day Bird “got the call that would shake our family to its core.”
“He was going at a high rate of speed and lost control,” Bird said. “He hit a telephone pole, and was ejected.”
His mother, Peikert, remembers that time in Rappe’s life as a moment where “he was on top of the world.” He had a good job, a fiancée and a child on the way, she said. At the time, Bird was pregnant with his nephew, Kameron. Rappe’s son, Les Greysen Rappe Spoonts, was born six months later.
Adults between the ages of 18 and 34 are less likely to wear seat belts than adults 35 or older, according to the CDC. Men are 10 percent less likely to wear a seatbelt than women and adults in rural areas are 10 percent less likely to wear seat belts than adults who live in urban areas.
Peikert and Bird both said they have gone years in their lives where they didn’t wear a seatbelt.
The mother and daughter agree the grief their family suffered following the death of Rappe is immeasurable and something many members are still healing from more than seven years later.
“Not only did I lose Les that day, but I lost my parents as well,” Bird said, sitting next to her mother. “When a child is taken before their parents, it’s unbearable — words can’t explain the pain, and it changes them forever.”
Peikert remembers her son for his formidable energy, and his sister for his honesty and infectiously generous and loyal personality. The family said they know what is at stake when drivers and passengers don’t wear their seat belts. Through year-round fundraising, she hopes to provide significant financial assistance to students, starting at Nikiski Middle-High School, with plans to expand to schools throughout the Kenai Peninsula.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teens, according to the CDC. In 2012, 55 percent of the teenagers that died in car accidents were not wearing their seat belts.
“He graduated from Kenai Alternative, but his heart was in Nikiski (Middle-High School),” Peikert said.
The Nikiski Senior Citizens will make the decision each year, which will go to a student interested in pursuing a career in vocational technology. Bird said she only asks to present the announcement and spend some time educating the students on the repercussions of not buckling up.
“We want to reach high school students — that’s in our hearts, that’s what we want to do,” Bird said.
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.