Family hopes 'Donasty's Law' has nationwide impact
On March 12, 2012 a school bus filled with children heading to Lighthouse Charter School slammed into a bridge pillar killing the driver, 60 year old Thomas Spencer II and 5 year-old Donasty Smith.
"She died on impact. She flew to where the driver was. She ended up under the steering wheel," said Donasty's mother Danyelle Smith.
What good can come from such a horrible tragedy? Only on 13, Smith is talking publicly about her daughter on a very difficult day.
"It's Donasty's birthday. My baby is six. Today. She didn't make it," said Smith.
Donasty's eight year old sister, Erielle Smith, who survived the crash, won't get back on a bus.
"She was frantic of going near a bus. She won't do it," said Danyelle Smith. "She screamed. She hollered. No mommy, no please don't make me get on the bus. I don't want to, please."
Erielle Smith named her doll after her little sister.
"She's really really pretty. When I get sad sometimes, I just play with her," said Erielle Smith.
The grief is still very real for this Indianapolis family. But so is the passion to discover a purpose in the pain.
"Donasty did not die for no reason. Her death had a purpose behind it and that purpose was to get Donasty's Law passed for seatbelts for children on school buses, everywhere. Not just Indianapolis, Indiana. Statewide, nationwide, countrywide," said Danyelle Smith. "Safety is first. That is my purpose is to get this law passed. So that these babies - or children - will have their safety first. It'll be a priority. I believe truly that if she had a seat belt, she'd be here," said Smith.
Smith remembers getting the horrible news after the crash occurred.
"The lady from the coroner's office came in and said I'm sorry, but I have to ask you this. Is this your daughter? My baby was on a metal table and I knew she wasn't coming back. She didn't make it," said Smith.
Westfield-based IMMI believes putting lap-shoulder belts on buses can save lives.
"Lap-shoulder belts have addressed many of the issues existing with lap belts and as a result have found greater acceptance by those who have thoroughly investigated their usage," said Charlie Vits, the Market Development Manager for SafeGuard, a brand of IMMI http://www.imminet.com/.
According to IMMI, California requires lap-shoulder belts. Lap belts are required in New York, New Jersey and Florida. Indiana does not require them.
"I see school buses that ride past my house and I'm scared because those school buses are riding down the street. My heart goes out to those children that are about to get on those school buses. I'll worry for them and they're not even my children," said Smith. "Kids are getting on school buses and you don't know if they're gonna come home. You don't know if it's going to crash. You don't know if that's going to be the last time you'll ever see your child," said Smith.
The Indiana Department of Education says there are more than 16,000 school buses in Indiana.
"We were asked to do a survey for the legislature in 2011 and the response totaled 3,344 total buses with at least one lap belt or lap/shoulder belt on the bus - that doesn't include the driver's belt," according to an email from Michael LaRocco from the Indiana Department of Education.
Students at Heritage Christian School ride on buses with lap-shoulder belts becoming the first school in Indiana to do so. Bartholomew County and Seymour schools are following suit. Vits said lap shoulder belts also improve behavior among passengers, citing a 90% reduction in reported school bus incidents in their first year and said they also lead to less distracted driving for bus drivers.
According to the IMMI, it would cost $7,000-$9,000 to put lap-shoulder belts in one bus. The Indiana Department of Education said the cost could reach $15,000 per bus depending on the school district.
Some schools say they don't have the money.
"It doesn't matter the price. It doesn't matter the cost. Their lives are more precious than the money it costs to equip these buses with seatbelts," said Smith.
So, what good can come out of a tragedy? For the Smith family it is remembering their little girl by looking through her pictures, toys, and schoolwork.
"I called her doodle-bug because when she was little she'd doodle everything, a crayon, a pencil, a pen. She'd decorate the house. Drawing whatever it was. As time went by, I called her stinky. And then she'd just wink, so I said stinky-winky. So, she's stinky winky to me. And she's doodle bug to everyone else," said Smith. "She was very goofy. Very silly. Very active. Very outspoken. She had a big voice for her little body. She was everything. Very caring and nurturing. If she saw you were sad, she'd come up and pat you on the back and say 'it's ok. It's gonna be ok mommy.'"
Danyelle Smith is determined to do everything she can to make sure another crash does not happen again.
"Protect the babies. Give them a chance at survival. Save the babies," said Smith.
The family ended Donasty's birthday remembrance at the Indianapolis cemetery where the young girl is buried. Linda Znachko, who created the "He Knows Your Name" ministry http://www.heknowsyourname.typepad.com/, helped create a headstone for the family who could not afford it and provided comfort for family and friends at the cemetery.
"These tragedies are so painful and yet joy comes in the morning," said Znachko. "The Lord promises to redeem the broken hearts that we have. I'm just really thankful to be with you today to celebrate Donasty's birthday. What a special time to come and honor her. It was a joyful day when she was born. We don't want to forget that. We want to honor her life because life matters. And even though she lost her life way too early and was so painful. We can still celebrate her life," said Znachko.
"She left us a legacy in her five short years of life. It's a challenge for all of us to say 'what's our life going to stand for? If someone wrote a description of what our name meant, what would it say? Whatever you want it to say, make your life mean that. Stand for that. I think that's a real encouragement from a sweet little person," said Znachko.
Znachko then closed the service with this prayer.
"Lord, in whom we trust, we freely acknowledge that we are often tempted to question your ways and wonder why you allow difficult things to happen. Not only in our life, but the lives of people we love. But we must admit, that we simply don't have the knowledge or perspective that we need to understand your purposes in the life of Donasty. So dear Lord, nothing can defeat your gracious and redemptive purposes. Thank you that we have hope that you will comfort Danyelle and her family as they learn to live without their precious angel, Donasty. Help them as they try to see this tragedy from a broader perspective of the Bible and make it clear that all of their pain will contribute to a far greater good that will continue into eternity. May we all who love Donasty never lose hope in you and your works. In Jesus name, Amen."
The family wrote memories of Donasty on balloons and released them into the air.
Eyewitness News Reporter Jennie Runevitch reported earlier this year that least two Indiana lawmakers, including Sen. Jean Breaux and Rep. John Bartlett, say they plan to propose "Donasty's Law" next session.
In addition, Indiana State Senator Earline Rogers, Democrat from District 3 which includes Gary, who proposed a bill in 2011 requiring drivers to instruct passengers how to use safety belts, told Channel 13 that she would be willing to consider supporting "Donasty's Law."