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Springfield mom turns grief into action after a head-on collision killed her daughter and three others

Brenda Protz and her daughter Jenna
Brenda Protz
Brenda Protz and her daughter Jenna

Jenna Protz was killed three years ago this month when a young driver crossed the centerline of a Montgomery County road and struck her grandparents’ car head on. All four of the people in the Protz vehicle died, including Jenna’s best friend. Holly Lidy. Both girls, who were traveling home from a Vandalia High School football game, were 14 years old. Reporter Maureen McKinney interviewed Jenna’s mother Brenda Protz of Springfield a day after the crash anniversary about her battle against distracted driving and how she honors her daughters’ memory. This is an edited, excerpted version of their conversation.

This is the third anniversary of the crash that killed your daughter, her grandparents and her best friend. How are you doing?

It just causes me to, I think reflect more than anything on the kindness of so many people. Um, just the people that reached out to me yesterday. The people that have been in our corner since day one, it's the outpouring of, of love and kindness and prayers is amazing. So many people who support us either through our Facebook page that we have honoring Jenna, as well as the one that they have on Holly, the people that those pages have reached – they don't know any of us, who follow us and support us in some way. The numbers of people who never got to know, Jenna, but have been there to support us in some way is pretty amazing. She was a girl who was always so preoccupied by the number of likes, she got on an Instagram post or something with Snapchat and so I often say, she has no idea how she truly affected the world.

Can you tell me about her what kind of person she was?

She was kind. She was passionate about the things that she loved, including her athletics and her friends and her family. There wasn't anything about Jenna, that wasn't just pure sunshine. She was a 14 year old girl with a 14 year old frustration, but she had so many hopes and for being so young. She had already been researching where she was going to go to college and you know, all of the things that she potentially wanted to do. And there's irony to that even because all the professions that she had talked about, since she was 12, were things that actually all had to work together to deal with her death, from mortuary science, to crime scene investigation to you know, be in a corner to be in anything related to law enforcement, like forensic pathology was her last thing that she was investigating. And these are all the people that had to come together to figure out her death.

Where'd she get that idea for that?

I'm not sure. She loved watching these true crime shows, and she could watch scary movies and never be scared by them. And just there was something about that, that she was very, very interested in and liked, I guess, solving mysteries in some way. So all I can say is that she was such a light. She just smiled all the time. And she wanted to make sure everybody around her was happy. She never wanted people to be sad or crying. And I know that through all of this, I think about that a lot. And I know that she would understand that. We have to have those moments where we grieve for her and cry for her but she doesn't want us to stay there. There's no doubt in my mind that was not that was not her personality.

She was quite the athlete, wasn't she?

She had definitely evolved into a powerhouse on the basketball court and in the gym, and the guys would kind of stand there with their mouths open as they would watch her consistent three- point shot just go in every time. She loves softball. She loved her field events and track events, especially the discus, and volleyball. And she also was a she had been drag racing since the age of 8 and the junior Drag Racing League. So she just did so many things she was involved in so many things like that, and involved in so many things. from a spiritual perspective, as far as youth group and things like that, that, you know, she had a whole other deeper side to her outside of her school on, you know, athletics and academics.

Holly Lidy and Jenna Protz
Brenda Protz
Holly Lidy and Jenna Protz

The crash happened after a young driver drifted lanes into the path of your family's car. You now been working on trying to combat distracted driving.

Our case is ongoing in Montgomery County. We do know that the driver drifted across – we do know that he was in the wrong lane of traffic for at least a football field and a half. And we know that he hit our family head-on. And he was injured and was transported to the hospital. And everyone in in the vehicle driven by my mother in law, were all killed. So those are the things that we certainly can say, that are part of, you know, the Illinois State Police investigation. And it’s become my mission to bring attention to the problem of distracted driving. Because for someone to do that, and to cross a centerline and be in oncoming traffic, something certainly would need to be distracting you. Whatever that is, whatever that distraction is, it can be as simple as putting on lipstick in a car; anything related to your cell phone, anything related to you being sleepy and getting behind the wheel. Those are all distractions, and I've gone down the interstate and seen people reading newspapers. Anything that keeps your mind your eyes off of the road in front of you is a distraction, whether it's talking to your kids or anything.

And how have you been spreading the word?

The most visible tis what I call the Jenna's Joy mobile, which is a Chevrolet Camaro that has been completely redone. And it has the logo on the side. And it's kind of operating off of the thoughts of, of what we want people to know Jenna and what we want to know Holly for is, is finding joy in your life and being kind to others. And so the side of my car says “ find joy be kind, just drive.” My license plate says, just drive.” Because I'm trying to get the message across that it's a privilege to get behind the wheel of a car. It's not a right. It is a privilege that we are given that can very easily be taken away.

I recently spoke to a recent driver's ed class in Riverton and just trying to impress upon them the need to just pay attention to what's going on. But anything else can wait. And if it can't, you need to pull over to take care of that. And if your car has the ability of talk-to- text and other things that can run through your car that you don't have to touch anything, utilize that. And so that is first and foremost. what we're trying to do, And then going along with that, I'm trying to get some laws changed. In in terms of this, I was able to get a law introduced last year in the Illinois State House that was called the Protz-Lidy Act. That was basically bringing attention to the need to anybody who is charged with anything related to this, especially with great bodily harm or death, that the minute they're charged, they should be losing their license. It didn't get out of the assignments committee last time.

Some things that need to be worked out so that it also includes more juvenile wording, because the driver in our situation, I mean, has never lost his license in three years. That's been the hardest thing for me is that the four lives can end without a license being taken at the bare minimum. So that's what I want to make sure that privilege is lost pending judicial outcome. In any case for somebody that has to go through this again.

Has this changed you?

People often ask iif going through something like this changes you, and there's absolutely no doubt about that. But what I don't want it to ever do is change me in such a way that I don't want to help others. And I don't want to have something good come out of this tragedy. And, you know, the loss of Jenna, the loss of Holly, the loss of my former in- laws, Jackie and Bill Protz, amazing people. Any one of those losses, to the people who knew and love them are so significant, to lose four people at one time, four absolute lights, I don't want to ever get to a place where I'm not able to talk about them. I want to always be able to get the word out that they existed, they lost their lives. And what can I do next, to keep other people from from going through this? To me, if I don't do that now, then I don't know that I have much meaning. And my goal right now is to help other families. Either through all changes, or just getting the word out there to not drive distracted to try to save other people's lives. You know, we did not get that.

In this case. You know, there's not enough things in place, dealing with distracted driving. And so, that's that's my big thing. And I think the other thing that I have learned in this process is that the judicial system certainly isn't fair. I had worked on the other side of it as a victim advocate, I had worked on the other side of it as a victim witness coordinator down in Fayette County, and there needs to be people in place in every county to help victims. I feel like the process is definitely pro-defendant. And while I've had other dealings working with groups like the Innocence Project, or I've worked on the other side of that, in this particular case, the victims are never announced in court. You wouldn't even know most days that anybody died. And I think some of that somehow needs to change in our system that victim advocacy needs to be increased.

Even in our smaller counties like Montgomery, we weren't given any sort of a victim advocate to work with when I did figure out who that person was, and contacted them. They never called me back. And I have friends who went through similar things in Sangamon and other counties who have had the advocacy, and have had the people that have been helping them get through this process. It's a blessing and a curse that I'm a former victim advocate. Because I know how things should be done. I know how families should be notified in terms of death notification. I hope that, you know, our story can make counties really look at their situations and reassess how they treat victims. Reassess that you actually return a call, the process itself of the judicial system somehow needs to be more victim oriented, and to help and to help families. And I don't know maybe I'm that person, maybe I'm supposed to be the one going around and, and educating some of the people in the smaller communities as to how to handle things.

Do you want to speak about Jenna’s joy?

And it's kind of cliche', but don't take things for granted. You know, I took everything for granted in many ways. While I always appreciated my, my two daughters and everything about them. You just counted on the fact that your family would always be intact. And you know, just one decision took them all from us. So, I want to get a message out there of, loving your family, spending more time with your children, taking more pictures and videos. Because in the end, this is all you've got. And I just want people to, you know, find joy every day no matter how rough things are, and to be kind to others because you don't know what battles they're dealing with. And don't, don't take your life for granted, or the life of those who love. We've started up a Facebook page called find Joy in the Journey, Love Jenna, which we feel is kind of like generous gift to all of us and we try to put inspirational quotes or stories or things up there. We, currently have a merchandise sale going on that's designed to put the message on people, whether it be on hats, or T- shirts or whatever to get that message out there to find joy in the journey. And because that's, that's really who she was. And we've made the decision that if we have to be on this horrible journey, and to be going through all of this, that we are going to do whatever we can every day, like Jenna would want us to do, to find something to bring us happiness every single day.

Jenna, was the light of her friends. She was always laughing and smiling, and she wanted other people to do the same. And we believe that that is the message that we have to keep going, that we have to keep getting the message out there of finding joy, because that's really what she brought to everybody that knew her was she put a smile on your face. She'd make a silly face if you didn't have a smile on your face. And she was just known for being so much fun. And having such a great sense of humor. And we're doing everything we can every single day to attempt to carry that on in her absence. The sad days can be really really sad. But in the middle we're trying to find joy.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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