JoAnn Hellmann is acutely aware of the devastation and emptiness that follow in the wake of a loved one’s death.
Over 40 years later, she still vividly remembers the phone call she received in 1975. The voice on the other end of the receiver said younger sister Kathy was dead.
The 20-year-old had been killed by a drunk driver on the street outside the family home.
The car had been traveling about 80 miles per hour, according to investigators, causing an impact so great the young woman was thrown 100 feet; their mother witnessed everything from the front porch.
It’s a story Hellman, co-founder, former director and panel facilitator of the Impaired Driving Impact Panel of Island County (or IDIPIC), has recounted numerous times as a part of the organization’s DUI/underage drinking prevention panels presented throughout Whidbey and Camano islands.
After 16 years at the helm, Hellmann will retire later this month, having passed on the directorial position to Mike Diamanti earlier this year. After several months of searching, Diamanti and Hellmann chose Alice Biddulph to fill the role of panel facilitator.
Biddulph has extensive professional experience presenting workshops and educational programs, and first discovered IDIPIC while accompanying driver education students to a panel on the South End.
She said she was impressed with the program, as well as Hellmann’s approach to presenting it.
“Always the forward thinker, JoAnn also created training tools and techniques that have proved extremely helpful toward a smooth transition as she steps down and Mike and I take over the reins,” she wrote in a statement.
“The community owes her a huge debt of gratitude,” she added, in regard to the impact of the IDIPIC program.
Hellmann cofounded IDIPIC with Karen Lewis, former probation supervisor for Island County, in March 2000.
“There were many people that came together that made IDIPIC happen,” she said.
“We were the co-captains of the USS IDIPIC and we had a very dedicated crew,” Hellmann said.
The group formed the organization in response to the realization of the need to combine “correction with prevention” to decrease incidents of DUIs and underage drinking in Island County.
The organization also provided “creative sentencing” for court-ordered DUI and MIP offenders in the county who would have otherwise had to travel off-island.
IDIPIC expanded to work with youth less than one year later.
Since its inception, facilitators have presented over 400 impact panels and have also presented numerous age-appropriate programs at local schools.
Lewis, who had also lost a loved one because of the actions of an impaired driver, retired in 2008. But she clearly remembers Hellmann’s dedication throughout those formative years.
“She was a driving force behind it. She was very passionate about what we were doing,” she said.
Lewis added that Hellmann’s retirement will be the end of an era, and that she hopes everyone currently involved in IDIPIC will maintain the drive and passion of the original crew.
It should come as no surprise, after so many years of dedicated efforts, that Hellmann isn’t letting go of her charge completely. She’ll still be staying on as a volunteer panelist and event helper.
Hellmann said that when she informed panel speakers and others of her impending retirement, she received several heartfelt responses. Coroner Robert Bishop, who has known Hellmann for over 20 years, said her tenacity and enthusiasm are inspirational.
“She still works just as hard as she did 20 years ago. I think it’s pretty admirable,” he said. “Nothing slows her down.”
Though he said he isn’t able to provide a definite number of deaths that can be attributed to impaired driving, he estimated that he has about five cases per year, though if individuals are still alive at the scene, they are often airlifted to Harborview and thus he does not handle those cases.
“I have to keep telling myself it makes a difference, otherwise I wouldn’t keep doing it,” Bishop said, conceding that it is difficult when, after a presentation, he is called to handle another case of a death caused by impaired driving.
“I hope it makes a difference to a lot of kids. If it makes a difference in one or two kids it is worth our efforts.”
Hellmann said it is impossible to prove how many DUIs IDIPIC may have prevented, but noted that there has been a drop in DUIs in Oak Harbor and Island County since IDIPIC began.
“We like to think IDIPIC has had a part in that, between the school program and these panels,” she said.
Over 32,000 individuals have attended the panels throughout the past 16 years; thousands more have attended other IDIPIC programs.
Bishop and Hellmann noted that part of the success of the panels is attributable to the heartfelt and real-life stories given by panelists.
“There’s a lot of heartache out there,” Hellmann said. “People have had such terrible losses. Even though I hear these stories over and over again, it still hurts.”
Despite the difficulty, Hellmann said many participants have told her the experience of sharing their story is therapeutic.
Receiving responses from young people expressing the impact IDIPIC has had on them makes the job enjoyable, Hellmann said. She hopes to continue to make a difference as a volunteer panelist and event assistant.
“My hope is that telling of my loss prevents someone else’s needless tragedy,” she said.