Our promise to Lacey: Lacey Gallagher remembered one year later

As filed – without edits – for last Friday’s edition of the Philadelphia Business Journal.

IT IS DISTURBING JUST HOW often you think you have heard the story.

How an 18-year-old finds a drive after the prom to be her last.

Last year Lacey Gallagher was a senior at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls, at Lycoming Street and 10th near Hunting Park.

She died one year ago Monday. And it was hard. But, Lacey’s parents wanted to find good out of tragedy. People on the1600-block of East Eyre Street in Fishtown find good out of tragedy. They implored support for Pennsylvania House Bill No. 163, which would increase the phased licensing of young drivers in Pennsylvania. They raised awareness of the dangers of teenage drivers, particularly during late night drives in crowded cars on prom night.

The family wanted a more permanent way to keep Lacey’s memory alive, so they have launched a scholarship fund and are in the process of establishing a nonprofit in Lacey’s name.

“It is about going on our own and establishing our own name,” said Denise Gallagher, Lacey’s mother. “We want this to last.”

Just before 3 a.m. on that Saturday morning, April 28, 2007, Lacey was en route with six friends to a post-prom Poconos weekend when their 2001 Suzuki SUV hit a cement lane divider and flipped on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near mile marker 40 of the Northeast Extension in Milford. Lacey died at the scene. Severe injuries were sustained by all other passengers, among them three of Lacey’s Little Flower classmates. There was no evidence of drug or alcohol use, though the then-17-year-old driver may have fallen asleep, and none of the passengers appeared to be wearing seat belts.

Still, the details have become largely secondary. Lacey has not.

Tonight 30 Philadelphia-area eighth graders will be awarded $1,000 scholarships towards Catholic high school in Lacey’s name, 18 of whom are destined for Little Flower.

“Lacey loved her education. She truly did. She was a great student. Our Catholic education was very important to her. ” Denise Gallagher said. “Lacey herself was awarded scholarships. Coming from a working-class family that meant the world to us… The schools have been so supportive. We’re helping families as they helped us.”

By chance, tonight Little Flower is also hosting its first senior prom after the accident in the Ballroom at the Ben at 8th and Chestnut Streets. Time must move on, but Lacey will surely be remembered.

“So many people care. It is unbelievable,” Denise said. “It is a great way to keep Lacey’s legacy going. We are so overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity.”

That generosity, including more than $60,000 in October alone, has come from community groups, schools, labor unions and businesses.

Philadelphia law firm Blank Rome, Hollywood Tans, Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar and the Home Depot on Castor near Aramingo Avenue in Port Richmond gave money. SugarHouse Casino has been among the largest contributors. Donations from corner bars, family construction companies and neighborhood delis spoke to what remains of a community some may have thought had been lost in Philadelphia. Donations from places like the Aramingo Diner, Murph’s Bar, JJT’s Deli, Hall Electric and the Fishtown Pizza Truck. Businesses you’ve never heard of. Businesses on the smallest, perhaps the most meaningful scale.

“So many people truly care and are touched and are behind us,” she said. “It has been overwhelming. They understand the tragedy our family is going through. They’re behind education. I truly don’t even know why, besides kindness.”

Lacey is remembered as quiet and kind, in love with soccer and destined to play for Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill College.

In youth, she played for a handful of recreation centers in the city, including Penn Academy and the Fishtown Athletic Club, for which donations were made in lieu of flowers for Lacey’s funeral. She made Little Flower’s varsity soccer team as a freshman, though she quit her senior year after dealing with the loss of her two grandmothers, with whom she was close. Still, she had looked forward to returning to the field for Chestnut Hill, her mother said, though she had also been accepted by Cabrini College and Immaculata and Holy Family Universities.

A day after her death, a MySpace memorial group had been formed. In launching the scholarship fund and their campaign to pass House Bill No. 163 – called ”Our Promise to Lacey” – the Gallagher family launched a Web site, www.thelaceyfund.org. On both, friends of Lacey recalled she wanted little more than the perfect prom experience.

She danced that night away, in a custom-tailored dress of her dreams, topped with a tiara, a lasting memory.

Tomorrow, the group is hosting a golf benefit at Ron Jaworki’s Valleybrook Golf and Country Club in Blackwood, N.J., and they expect to be just a few months removed from receiving their 501c3 status. They’ve recently partnered with Cosmo Girl magazine for a “Students for a Safe Prom Promise” campaign. More than 600 young people signed an online promise outlining safe prom behavior. See it here.

“It grew bigger than we anticipated it would in the beginning,” Denise Gallagher said.

Additionally, Lacey, who was born and raised in Fishtown and attended Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Grade School before Little Flower, is the focus of the push to pass HB No. 163, though it has stalled for months in the Pennsylvania House appropriations committee.

Among the bill’s other measures, it requires teens seeking a driver’s license to first complete at least 65 hours of practice driving, including no less than 10 hours of supervised nighttime driving and no less than five supervised hours of driving in inclement weather. Currently Pennsylvania law requires 50 hours of unrestricted practice driving. The bill also forbids junior drivers from having more than one person under 18 in the vehicle.

Denise wants to make other parents aware of the dangers, in the hopes of saving other young lives, with her daugher’s memory to power her message.

“So many people didn’t know how special she was,” Denise Gallagher said. “Lacey was just a well-rounded girl with a lot of hopes and dreams.”

See other examples of my reporting here. See similar pieces for the Philadelphia Business Journal here.