BURRILLVILLE – An annual statewide event that recognizes the victims of drunk and drugged drivers will be held in town for the first time next week, and student volunteers from Burrillville High School and Middle School have been working for the past month to make it a success. 

The Mothers Against Drunk Drivers Rhode Island Candlelight Vigil will be held at BHS on Thursday, Dec. 5, with a program of speakers and memorials to honor those lost, and pay tribute to the loved ones of those killed or injured by impaired driving. 

“The Candlelight Vigil is an event that honors victims as innocent people who were killed or injured needlessly by drunk and drugged drivers,” explained Monica Blanchette, head of the Burrillville Prevention Action Coalition. 

“This is the first one that’s been in this part of the state in several years,” said Supt. Michael Sollitto at a BPAC meeting earlier this month.

Blanchette noted that the annual MADD vigil has never been held in Burrillville, and that the last time it was held in northern Rhode Island was more than six years ago in North Providence.

The initiative to bring it to town in 2019 came through this year’s crop of Youth Force students, a group of six young volunteers who attended a summit put on by the Rhode Island State Police Chief’s Association over the summer. The six students have committed to a year-round leadership program aimed at addressing traffic safety in town. 

Youth Force Program Coordinator Rebecca White brought the idea of a Burrillville vigil to the MADD RI organization.

White, a victim of drunk driving herself, survived a crash in 1999 at the age of 13, but lost her mother and best friend in the accident. White was the speaker at the BHS Pre-Prom Dinner last year, and will also be the first guest victim speaker at the vigil.

She is part of a program for the community put together by the students themselves, who have given up time on the weekends to work on tasks such as selecting speakers and choosing musical pieces. Blanchette said that at least seven 6th through 12th grade students have shown up for each and every vigil planning meeting.

“None of the students are required to participate,” she said. “It is all their own volunteer time and passion driving them to make this a great event.”

Samantha Kennelly, another local survivor of a drunk driving accident that took place exactly two years ago, will also participate.

Kennelly is the groups’ Adopted Victim, as part of a MADD program that has communities work to honor and recognize specific individuals.   

“We are in a more unique position because our victim survived, and we are working directly with her,” Blanchette said of the Burrillville contingent.

Gaby Abbate, a Burrillville resident who is the former director of MADD RI and current chief of the Office of Highway Safety at the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, will also speak at the vigil. 

Blanchette said that the student volunteers’ most recent planning meeting also included MADD RI Victim Services Specialist Francie Mantak.

The vigil, she notes, aims to not only honor the victims of drunk driving, but support their families, and to give tragic events a real and human face. 

“It is an event of hope and remembrance for victims and victims’ families,” Blanchette said. “The images of the victims are shown during the candle lighting portion of the vigil. The vigil helps to recognize victims as people and not just numbers or statistics of drunk or drugged driving.”

“The Candlelight Vigil serves as an event that memorializes and honors victims as innocent people who were killed or injured needlessly,” notes a MADD write up on the event. “Families get involved with MADD as part of their healing journey to help prevent tragedies from striking others.”

“The vigil reminds the general public that no one is immune to the completely non-discriminatory person who chooses to drink, then drive.”

The MADD Candlelight Vigil will be held on Thursday, Dec. 5 starting at 7 p.m., until 8:30 p.m., in the auditorium at Burrillville High School.

Light refreshments will be served following the vigil. The event is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by the Burrillville community and MADD RI.

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