By MADDY VITALE
Patty and John Ade, of Galloway Township, know what it is like to lose a loved one to a drunken driver. Their nephew, Kevin Ade, was just 19 when he was killed by one.
Although it was years ago, April 28, 2007, the feeling of loss and sadness still lingers for the couple.
“It is sad, but we all stick together,” Patty Ade said Sunday morning as she joined hundreds of other marchers during the HERO Campaign Run/Walk on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
The ninth annual John R. Elliott HERO Campaign Walk and Run kicked off at Sixth Street at the Sports and Civic Center. The goal was to raise more than $50,000 and continue to spread the word that designated drivers are key to safer roadways.
Bill and Muriel Elliott’s son, Navy Ensign John R. Elliott, was killed by a drunk driver just two months after he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.
The Elliotts, of Egg Harbor Township, formed the HERO Campaign in 2000, shortly after John’s death in July. Their nonprofit continues to grow 19 years later.
On Sunday morning rains pelted the Boardwalk, but the Ades continued to walk among friends, who, like them, know of the tragedies and loss caused by drunken drivers.
“Kevin was our hero,” Patty said. “He had a kind nature and was fun to be around. He was happy-go-lucky. He and our son, John, were so close.”
The couple has been participating in the HERO walk since 2008.
“It helps us,” John Ade said.
When the walk was set to begin, teams of people grabbed their umbrellas, put on their caps and walked up to the Boardwalk. Students from area high schools joined survivors of drunken drivers and families of those lost.
They walked to represent hope and support for each other and to spread awareness to the rest of the world that people should never drink and drive, Bill Elliott explained.
“There are more people supporting us than ever,” he said.
More than 500 HERO shirts were sold for the event.
Unfortunately, Elliott said, the growth of the organization also could be a reflection of more people dying at the hands of drunk drivers.
He calls them “memory teams,” the groups of people who participate in the walk and run who have sponsors. Many of them have either lost loved ones or know people who have.
Richard Sweeney, who lives in Mount Laurel and has a vacation home in Ocean City, attends the event each year with his daughter, Kristina.
Prior to the walk starting, Sweeney addressed the crowd in the civic center during a ceremony.
He told of how he almost died in October 1999 when he went out for a jog by his home in Mount Laurel and was struck by a drunken driver.
After his somber story of how he almost lost his life, a ceremony was held in which runners from the morning event were given medals and plaques.
When it was time for the walk, teams, all wearing T-shirts signifying their groups, marched up to the Boardwalk holding banners in support of the HERO campaign.
The Ades held up a poster with their nephew Kevin’s photo. There were other photos of lost loved ones mixed in with the HERO campaign posters.
On the count of three, the participants tossed their HERO caps in the air at the start of the walk.
The Elliotts and Grand Marshal Patrick Aiken, of Somers Point, and his wife, Valerie, led the procession down the Boardwalk.
The Aikens, who own Ana Towing, have known the Elliott family for years and strongly believe in their cause.
“We are sponsors. It is a great organization,” Patrick Aiken said. “Hopefully one day there will be no more drunken driving.”
Adjacent to the civic center was an Ocean City police car wrapped in HERO campaign slogans.
The Ocean City Police Department was the first to create a HERO campaign car. Atlantic City and Linwood police departments followed.
“Drunken driving is the most preventable crime,” Elliott said. “Today is an expression of these great partnerships we have with our law enforcement, schools and the community. We want to eliminate drunken driving. We are changing the culture of America.”
The HERO campaign is partnering with Uber to provide 2,000 rides from about 30 bars in the area in hopes of saving lives, Elliott noted.
“Lives should not be cut short by drunken drivers,” he said. “We look back and have memories. We want to look forward, so others’ lives are not cut short.”
And for the Ades, and so many others like them stricken by grief caused by a drunken driver, the day signifies remembering the people they lost and to honor their memories.
“It makes you feel that he is still here,” Patty said of her nephew. “It is still so hard. We still think of Kevin every day. Sometimes I dream about him and he says he is OK.”