October 1, 2012
Carrying the torch: Student carries on sister's memory through ad campaigns, anti-texting and driving commercials
Ashley Umscheid was texting a single letter -- "k" -- on May 16, 2009, when her truck flipped, forcing her out the window. Three days later, the 19-year-old sophomore at Kansas State University died at Stormont-Vail Regional Health Center in Topeka.
Ashley Umscheid had been replying to a text from her older sister, Amanda, who didn't know Ashley was driving. Since then, Amanda Umscheid has made it her mission to make sure the same kind of tragedy doesn't happen to other families.
Umscheid, Paxico, takes courses in college student development at Kansas State University, where she is an administrative assistant for the Graduate School. She said the day of her sister's accident also was the ninth anniversary of their father's death, and the two sisters had been texting about how their lives had changed.
"Ashley asked if I was going to a family reunion, and I replied ‘yeah,'" Umscheid said. "My mom called 30 minutes later and said Ashley had been in an accident."
The sisters may have argued and bickered growing up, but Umscheid said that in recent years they had begun to grow close. Ashley, who was six years younger, had celebrated the last day of her freshman year the day before the accident.
"I'm glad we had a couple years of secret-sharing and giggling," Umscheid said. "We were becoming the sisters we should have always been. After the accident, I had a lot of guilt. I didn't know she was driving while we were texting, but I felt partly responsible for not protecting her or warning her about texting and driving."
Instead of becoming bogged down in guilt and sadness, Umscheid decided to use her family's story as an example to help others. In September 2009, her cousin, a school physical therapist, persuaded Umscheid to tell Ashley's story at Mission Valley High School in Eskridge.
After her presentation, telecommunications company AT&T asked Umscheid to be a part of its "It Can Wait" campaign advocating against texting and driving. She agreed and documented her story for a commercial and a short documentary, "The Last Text." Although she had never pictured herself as an advocate, Umscheid said she never hesitated.
"I was nervous about being asked to present our family's story on such a national level," she said. "But I wanted to do my part to make sure this never happened to anyone else. It's been part of my healing process. I can't get rid of feeling guilty, but I can get through it and understand it."
In addition to her work on the AT&T campaign, Umscheid sits on the board of directors for TxtResponsibly.org and travels to different schools and businesses telling Ashley's story and warning others who text and drive that the risk is not worth it. Her main message to her audiences is that no one is immune. It takes only six seconds to type a text, but at 60 miles per hour, a car travels more than the length of a football field in that time.
"You can be the best driver, but the situation around you can change in an instant," Umscheid said. "If you have respect for yourself and others, you won't put your family through what we've had to go through."
Before her sister's accident, Umscheid hadn't given much thought to the issue of texting and driving. Growing up, she said, the technology was new enough that it was never presented to high school students.
"I've never felt comfortable texting and driving because I didn't grow up with it," Umscheid said. "Nobody was talking to this generation about it. It was important that Ashley hear the message, but she never did."
Thanks to the efforts of Umscheid and the many other advocates speaking out against texting and driving, young people all over the nation are now hearing the message. Recently, Umscheid has done interviews with local media and spoken at schools as far as New York. On Oct. 10, she will share her story at Stormont-Vail's YOLO -- You Only Live Once -- Injury Prevention Expo for Teens at Hummer Sports Park in Topeka.
As time goes on and she speaks to larger crowds, Umscheid said she is getting more comfortable and passionate about the cause.
"I'm not trying to sell anyone on anything," she said. "I'm not trying to perform or make it funny. It is what it is. My family is proud because it's not something they are able to do. It's a big responsibility, and I want to take it seriously."
In addition to helping her cope with her grief and help others, Umscheid said the experience helped lead her toward her choice of a master's degree in college student development. She's also aware of the connection that will forever exist between her family and Kansas State University.
"My sister attended K-State, but I never got to watch her graduate," Umscheid said. "Now when I get my master's and get to walk across the stage, I'll pick up where she left off. It will be full circle."