Julie Garner is Vice President, Executive Manager to the CEO at The Martin Agency, an advertising firm in Richmond, VA. Along with her husband Lowell and daughter Alexandra, Julie established a non-profit foundation in her son’s memory, dedicated to saving youth from traffic related death. Project Yellow Light/Hunter Garner Scholarship is a short film and billboard design competition where high school and college students create videos or billboard designs to warn their peers of the dangers of distracted driving. Julie shows us what it means to rise up against the greatest heartbreak imaginable and creating something that’s meaningful and helps others.
1. What makes you a Beyond Mom?
Ha! I don’t consider myself a Beyond Mom or anyone special for that matter; but I’m terribly honored that you have deemed me as such. Thank you– I’ll take it. I am the mother of two wonderful children. My daughter, Alexandra (Alex) is 23 and has grown into a beautiful young woman. She is my best friend and outside my husband, closest confidante. My son Hunter would be 25 had he not died tragically in a car crash when he was 16.
I once heard it described that having a child is liking having your heart outside your own body, beating in someone else. I couldn’t agree more – it’s a bond of pure, unconditional love. Losing a child is like having your heart ripped from your chest, thrown to the ground and crushed. In fact, I almost died when Hunter did. I certainly wished I could. But I had my daughter and husband and we needed each other.
So instead, the three of us poured our energy into doing something for the greater good. We discovered that car crashes are the leading cause of death for youth in the U.S. (ages 15-24). It’s not drug overdose, teen suicide, gang violence, gun violence, some horrible disease – it’s car crashes. Who knew? I didn’t until I looked that horror in the face. I can’t bring Hunter back, but I sure as hell can do everything in my power to save other young people from meeting that same demise.
2. What are the parts of you that have grown and expanded since becoming a Mom?
I learned to love like I never knew. Having children is an amazing experience – it brings you to the highest heights and the lowest depths. It makes you bigger than yourself. For me, it is also a lesson of survival and perseverance. How do you survive your deepest and darkest fear? It’s a daily process, but I’m one of many moms still standing after tragedy, proving that it can be done. Nothing is the same after losing a child. However, there is something gained. A clear purpose in life, an ability to know and focus on what’s truly important — the superficial goes by the wayside. A huge empathy and understanding for others, especially those suffering. There is a certain growth and strength in character, and an ability to survive against all odds. I have faced my worst fear; everything else will be OK because having survived this — I can overcome any other obstacle.
3. Can you share a collaboration/success story with another woman; what helped the collaboration become successful?
I have several amazing women who have helped me succeed. I mentioned earlier that we started something for the greater good; with my husband and daughter (pictured below), I co-founded a non-profit project/scholarship called Project Yellow Light/Hunter Garner Scholarship in Hunter’s honor. PYL is a scholarship competition for high school and college students designed to bring about change. Applicants have one clear mission; to embrace safe driving habits by creating a video or billboard urging their friends to avoid distracted driving; particularly texting while driving. There’s no one better at warning their peers of the dangers on the road than the youth themselves. They communicate with one another in a voice and in a way that resonates and connects. The women who have helped with this project have been amazing – starting with my daughter Alex, who has been there since day one. My dear female friends at work who put so much strategic and creative guidance into this effort. The amazing women of the Ad Council who have piloted it to where it is today. All throughout the nine years this project has been in existence, it’s been women who have brought about so much of our success.
4. What relationships help you stay connected to yourself?
My husband, Lowell. He’s my rock. It’s no doubt that losing a child presents a huge strain on even the best marriages. There is a natural tendency to want to place blame or fault with oneself or others … if we had just done this, had you been home…, and on and on. There’s also a great deal of survivors’ guilt. I would have given anything to have traded places with Hunter. I should have died, not him. So many layers of complexity, suffering and shock. In fact, Lowell and I realized about a year after Hunter’s death that we had been in complete shock all that time – something like walking through an infinite purgatory. I don’t think there’s any secret formula to making things work, other than deciding you will. There were many disagreements and more pain than I care to remember, but in the end, you know that there’s love—love for one another, for your children, for the child you lost. For me, I forgave myself as much as possible. I found peace in the snippets I could gather, going for a walk. Getting out of town on occasion. Drinking wine. Doing things in Hunter’s memory. It probably boils down to determination and will to keep things together; especially when so much has been lost.
5. Do you have a ‘Beyond’ dream that you are pursuing? If so, please share…
I have a full time career with people I love, but my passion is in Hunter’s project and the knowledge that we are helping our youth save themselves from the number one killer. Project Yellow Light started in Hunter’s high school with a handful of teens; in four short years we were approached by the Ad Council and given a national platform. Since that time we’ve attracted amazing partners in addition to the Ad Council – Clear Channel Outdoor, Mazda Motorsports, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), National Organizations for Youth Safety (NOYS) and U-Haul. We hold two separate contests – one for video and the other for billboard design. In addition to receiving a cash prize, the winners’ work is turned into a professional Public Service Ad by the Ad Council and distributed nationwide to run on TV in numerous markets across the country. The billboard winners have their work displayed on Clear Channel Outdoor digital boards throughout the U.S. Maybe the most impressive thing to our applicants is that their work is judged by some amazing individuals – including Kweku Mandela, global advocate for youth safety, film producer and grandson of Nelson Mandela; Wendy Clark, CEO & President of DDB NA, a global advertising agency; and Aloe Blacc, Grammy-nominated recording artist and songwriter.
We also partner with the Virginia Film Festival to showcase the students’ work and are looking for more film festivals to do the same. We’re constantly looking for new ways to expand – both in our reach and our ability. It would be awesome to hand out more scholarships each year and also increase the prize amounts; which would lead to more awareness and to saving more lives. So if anyone out there is interested in doing some good, get in touch! I tell our youth that they have this amazing ability to persuade and influence their peers – and that by being involved with Project Yellow Light, they are having a voice, making a difference and saving lives. We wait all our lives to have that sort of impact on society – and these teens and young adults are doing it right now. Pretty big stuff.
6. What wellness activity can you not live without? What is one thing you do daily that balances you?
After losing a child, you go through physical changes. It’s not surprising — our thoughts and emotions have a huge impact on our health and well-being. For me, the impact was striking; I experienced premature menopause immediately following Hunter’s death. It was like my body shut down. I had been a runner, averaging 20 miles a week for almost 30 years. I found I could no longer do it, partly because I had guilt for being alive when Hunter was not and partly because I suffered from permanent exhaustion. I did finally take up Pilates and yoga; the latter was a lifesaver. I experienced profound emotion during yoga practice — when I couldn’t express emotion otherwise. I’m happy to say that I’ve started running again – but this time with no self-pressure on results. I don’t run far, and only when I can carve out the time. It’s never easy but the reward comes when I finish. It’s a sense of accomplishment. Of feeling alive. Of gratitude. And the best anti-depressant on the planet.
7. How does style influence the way you stay feeling ‘Beyond’? Who is currently your favorite designer?
Levi Strauss – I love Mr. Strauss. I’ll wear any brand nowadays but I’m a jeans and cotton tee person. Also love my Nikes. Don’t get me wrong, I adore beautiful fashion, but every morning when I get up and think about what to wear… it all comes back to comfort.
Favorite Spots that Embody The Beyond Mom in Richmond, Virginia:
Wine. Red wine; but I’ll take white too. What a gift from God. And I’m a huge foodie… thank heavens my husband is a phenomenal cook. Some of my favorite eating spots in Richmond include Rappahannock, Heritage, Belmont Food Shop and Rowlands. There are also two wonderful hotels in town, one old, established and grand. The other new, boutique-style and fun. The grand Jefferson Hotel and the fun Quirk. Both boast great restaurants and bars.
When I’m at work (in the historic area of Richmond, VA) I work out at my local YMCA, downtown branch. It’s a great facility – really first class and it keeps me grounded. There are wonderful areas all around Richmond for walks – Canal Walk, along the James River (with class IV rapids right in the heart the city), around the state capitol (designed by Thomas Jefferson). In Church Hill with a stop at St. John’s Episcopal, where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech.
I’m big into supporting my community and love unique places; be it art, clothing, food, wine, a homegrown restaurant. I’m all for it.
Project Yellow Light will be announcing the 2016 winners of both the video and billboard contests at an event in New York on June 8. We are thrilled to unveil the winners’ work on boards in Times Square, thanks to the generosity of Clear Channel Outdoor. There are 6 total video winners – 3 high school and 3 college, and one winner in both high school and college for the billboard competition. In addition to handing out a total of $20,000 scholarship prizes, the Ad Council turns the winning videos into a PSA for distribution to their national network of more than 1,600 media outlets and the billboard winners will see their design placed on billboards throughout the country, courtesy of Clear Channel Outdoor Americas. We received almost 900 submissions from 49 states.