BY JENNIFER CROWLEY
February 9, 2017 is a date that most residents of Scottsville and Wheatland will never forget. On that morning, three generations of the Nicolosi/Lewis family were driving down Scottsville-Chili Road (Route 386) en route to drop cousins and best friends Kael and Keith (Keithy) Nicolosi off at school.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead a distracted driver failed to stop at the Morgan Road intersection,striking the Nicolosi’s vehicle with force. Tiffany Nicolosi and her nephew, nine-year old Keithy, suffered serious injuries while her mother, Valerie Lewis, received minor injuries. But the injuries to Tiffany’s eight-year old son Kael, a happy third-grade student at T. J. Connor Elementary School, were fatal.
Ultimately Keithy and Tiffany largely recovered from their physical injuries. But for Tiffany and her husband, also named Keith, the real pain will never go away. Kael was a fun, caring and smart boy with an extremely bright future; a role model to his peers. He was additionally the beloved younger brother of Wyatt and cherished older brother of sister Alexa, in Kindergarten at the time of the accident.
“To say this year has been unbearable would be an understatement,” said Tiffany Nicolosi reflecting back on the last year of her family’s life. “I was extremely close to my father and he passed very suddenly one day in 2014 at the age of 66. I felt like this would be the greatest pain I would ever experience. But I was wrong. The loss of a child can only be truly understood by other parents that have had to endure it. It often hurts so badly that it feels like physical pain. There were several times I felt like I might die from a broken heart.”
The first year following the loss of a child is nothing short of a nightmare for bereaved families. Adjusting to the ‘new normal’ and what that means for birthdays, holidays and other special – or even mundane –moments is herculean in emotional effort.
Earlier this year, with the one-year anniversary of Kael’s passing approaching, the extended Nicolosi family decided to take a trip to celebrate his life while simultaneously mourning the day that changed their lives in unimaginable ways. Tiffany, Keith and Alexa along with Keithy, his parents Phil and Audrey, and sisters Kristi and Ari, were on a cruise to Cozumel, Jamaica and Haiti on February 9th. Tiffany explained why the destination was meaningful for them all.
“About a week before the accident, Kael walked into my room and said, ‘Mom, I want to adopt an orphan.’ I told him that was a big responsibility, that saving $30 a month to support an orphan would be difficult. He looked at me and said, ‘It’s ok because I have $100 saved already and I can do chores or little jobs for people to make more.’ I reminded him that he had been saving for a laptop and he basically told me that saving a child’s life was much more important than a new computer. That exchange made my heart feel like exploding with pride.”
As for how the family and community continue to honor the life of Kael, his spirit lives on in many ways. The Nicolosis recently announced the establishment of the Kael Nicolosi Foundation to help spread awareness around the dangers of distracted driving. “Right now we are selling bracelets to raise money and soon I hope to speak at schools and other community organizations. I want to talk about Kael and bring reality to how quickly distracted driving can change a person’s life.”
The Foundation is also focusing on simple acts and ways to spread kindness. According to all who knew him, one of Kael’s greatest attributes was that he was an ‘includer.’ Soon the Foundation will start donating ‘buddy benches’ to schools, parks and communities. Each bench will be orange and purple (Kael’s favorite colors), along with an inspiring quote on friendship, and Kael’s superhero logo. “If a child has no one to play with or wants to make a new friend, he or she can sit on the buddy bench. This tells other children that they would like the chance to play. Kael was very passionate that no one ever felt left out so these benches truly represent something he cared very deeply about.”
Kael’s former third-grade peers and friends have coped with his loss by honoring his life nearly every single day. One friend, nine-year old Torrence Bansbach, had this to say about Kael, “He was a great friend. He was nice to everybody and always tried to help you if you are sad. I was so excited to play spring league hockey with him last year and for him to be on my team this year but we never got the chance. I go visit his grave and tell him what’s been going on.”
For Kael’s one-year anniversary his classmates and teachers gave the family a bucket of cards with personal memories of Kael and the impact he had on their lives. “These are amazing kids and it breaks my heart knowing they had to experience loss at such a young, innocent age. They all still wear his shirts, his bracelets and visit his grave on a regular basis. They are each going to put their handprint on the bench that T. J Connor is donating in his honor,” offered Tiffany.
While the family continues to adjust to life without Kael, they must also endure the administrative aftermath of the crash. Following the accident, they, along with friends and neighbors, galvanized to try and force changes at the intersection of 286 and Morgan Road. It has been the scene of several other accidents both prior to and after the one that took Kael’s life. Last August the Department of Transportation announced plans to improve pavement markings, clear brush and trees and install additional signage indicating that there’s a stop sign ahead.
Meanwhile the driver of the other vehicle who had admitted to missing the stop sign because he was distracted, has so far only had his license revoked. He will be able to apply for another in the future. The Nicolosis however just celebrated what would have been Kael’s tenth birthday, without him. “His bedroom is still ‘his’ room, his sneakers are still on the doormat by the front door, his coats are still hanging in the closet and his toothbrush is still in the bathroom. We still include him in all experiences and say, ‘Goodnight Kael, we love you’ every single night before we go to bed,” said Tiffany.
In addition to pressing for further safety improvements such as adding flashing lights to the stop signs at the Morgan Road/386 intersection, the Nicolosis have something else in the works for 2018. Coming soon, an enterprise that will bring together the things Kael loved in a way that will touch the lives of all in the community that continues to mourn his loss. Let’s just say it is looking iconic, so stay tuned.