Overland has come back from last year's biking tour tragedy stronger and with more focus on proactive safety. The parents of Merritt Levitan, who was killed in the accident, are raising awareness of distracted driving.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A year ago this month on a rural road in Arkansas, a driver struck and killed 18-year-old Merritt Levitan as she participated in a cross-country bicycle trip with the Williamstown-based Overland summer program.
It was the kind of senseless tragedy that could devastate a family ... or a business.
Instead, it galvanized both.
Determined to carry on the spirit of their daughter's life, Merritt's parents created a charitable foundation to educate about the dangers of distracted driving and support inner-city education in her hometown of Boston.
And from the moments after Merritt was struck — and continuing through today — Anna Cheshire Levitan and Rich Levitan continue to be strong supporters of the Overland adventures of which Merritt was so excited to be a part.
"We're at this hospital in Memphis," Overland founder and director Tom Costley said. "It's a trauma center downtown, so it's incredibly busy — helicopters on the rooftop, ambulances. And there's this plaza out in front, and [my wife] Liz and I are walking with the trip leader and five other kids, and we're heading toward the entrance to go inside to say goodbye to Merritt.
"Unbeknownst to us, Merritt's mom, Anna, is coming the other way, and she recognizes us — she recognizes [the trip leader]. And she's this itty-bitty dancer from Georgia, and she just strides over and pulls down Mike into her arms. He's 6-3, she's maybe 5-3, and she hugs him and kisses him and says, 'This is not your fault.'
"We step into this room to say goodbye to Merritt, and the whole family is there, and Rich and Anna are holding hands, and they addressed Liz and me directly and said, 'You have to keep doing this.' "
Not only has Overland continued, it has grown. The extended Overland family of families who have participated in its trips over the last three decades returned in droves. This summer there are more youngsters than last year hiking, biking, camping and participating in overseas language programs under the Overland banner.
Tom Costley recently sat down with iBerkshires.com to talk about the last year and how the education and adventure program has survived, improved and thrived.
Q: How were you able to move beyond last summer and keep going?
A: When the worst thing that could possibly happen happened, everyone here completely pulled together and supported each other through it and then rededicated ourselves to doing the best that we can at everything we do.
The commitment to our mission — it really is a mission that drives us, a feeling that we have something special to offer kids and we're going to keep offering it. We're going to keep working hard to make what we have to offer valuable and fun.
And then, obviously out of a tragedy like last summer, you look and say, 'Let's comprehensively look at everything we do in terms of managing the risks our kids face.' That's obviously going to be part of it.
How do you manage a group in Barcelona? Because there are risks there: outsiders, crime, for example. How do you manage a group hiking in Alaska? There are environmental risks: weather, fast cold moving water. How do you manage a group in Williamstown when there are 10-year-olds and they're camping at a state park in the area? What kind of supervision do you provide when they're going to the bathroom to brush their teeth at night? We looked at that and asked ourselves the question. Are we doing what we need to be doing? Well, you always send a leader to supervise the 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds. By the time they're 13, you pair them up.
These are the kind of things we went through comprehensively.
In terms of biking, let's look at everything we do with biking, and let's break it down and think it through and then make a plan about how we can improve everything we do, just as we did with Barcelona or Alaska or Clarksburg State Park.
Q: How many kids do you have on bike trips?
A: That's about a quarter of our enrollment. We have 2,000 kids in our program this summer, probably 500 are on bike trips.
Every kid wears high-visibility jerseys now. That's new. We had bike jerseys, but they were navy blue and white. Now we have high-vis Overland T-shirts they wear or vests they wear. That's in addition to safety flags, in addition to riding in a group, in addition to leaders in the rear.
The leaders now have flashing lights on their bikes.
And then finally, we did a comprehensive review of every road we ride on — every road.
Q: How many miles are we talking about?
A: I don't know. ... Over 10,000 miles. We did it first online. You can use Google maps and streetview and actually look at every road.
So you do that for over 10,000 miles, and then you reach out to bike clubs, local organizations, bike stores and ask for information. You synthesize that and make revisions — not everywhere, but some revisions to our routes. And then we sent someone out to drive them this spring.
It's a huge bit of work. But that's part of the response to Arkansas.
Q: What else did you do?
A: We staffed up. We hired more people — both year-round and in the spring when we did the driving. We spent more time internally with an additional staff person looking at all the things I started talking about.
You start by recommitting yourself to your mission, and then you say, how can we make what we do the best it can be.
That's what happens internally, and as a result, there was so much positive energy in our office and in our broader community ... There are families who will send both their kids, three kids. They'll do six trips between them, eight, nine trips between them, these really committed families. And then there's that next layer of people who have had a wonderful experience some time in the last 29 years — this is our 30th year — and they respond. So there's this wonderful response from this community that must now have 20,000 families.
What happens is, your enrollment goes up. So you go from 1,750 to 2,000 kids. But none of that matters without this last bit: None of this could have been possible for me emotionally without the support of Merritt's parents.
And we had their support from the moment we chartered a jet and picked up Merritt's dad. Her mom was in Georgia. She got a lift on another plane herself. We chartered a jet, flew it into Boston, picked up Rich and his two kids, stopped in Albany and picked up a parent from that group from the Saratoga area ... From the moment we stepped on that plane, those people showed us incredible grace, just incredible grace.
Q: Had you met her parents before that?
A: My admissions team had been involved with them in the spring because Merritt had Type-1 diabetes. So there was lots of back-and-forth between.
And then because the family lives in Georgia — they had moved from the Boston area to Georgia — they came up and dropped Merritt off in Charleston, S.C., where the trip started. So they had a chance to meet our leaders.
Once the accident happened, one leader was in the hospital — she's fully recovered now. The other leader was with me and the rest of the kids. And Rich invited us to the hospital to say goodbye.
Q: At any point — immediately after the accident — did it enter your mind that this could alter the way you do business, not in the positive ways you talked about, but in terms of not continuing?
A: Yeah. Sure, why not? It's searing. You can't believe this has happened. You always feared that it could, of course, because you had responsibility for other people's children. And anything you do, whether you run a school or a camp as we do, there are risks involved.
So we always understood that. But when it did happen, of course, you're just devastated. But you fight through that.
Rich and Anna are unbelievable people who have pulled Liz and me into their inner circle of supporters. And it's mutual. They're supportive of us, and we're in touch with them every single month.
Q: I was going to ask how much contact you've had with the family over the last year.
A: All year long, it's been constant. The end of the summer, we drove down to Milton, that's where they lived before they moved to Georgia. And the trip leaders wanted to visit, so we sat in their beautiful house and visited. We brought back Merritt's saddle bag to them.
That was the beginning of our friendship with them that, as I said a moment ago, is mutually sustaining.
What we feel is infinitesimal compared to what they're feeling. What we've lost is nothing compared to what they've lost. But there's wonderful support, and now there's commitment.
What they have done is committed themselves to a positive response to the worst thing a parent can go through.
Q: They started a foundation in her name, right?
A: Right. If you go to merrittsway.org, you'll see their focus is on educating young people in particular as to the dangers of distracted driving, the umbrella that includes texting.
Unimportant, as far as I'm concerned, is whether the boy was actually texting. I don't know if he was or not. What's more important is Rich and Anna met with him and have forgiven him.
Q: That says a lot about the kind of people they are, doesn't it?
A: It's unbelievable. ... Anna's quote, I think, is, 'This boy did not wake up in the morning intending to kill somebody. It just happened. We have absolutely forgiven him. We are people of faith.'
And so their effort is into promoting awareness of the dangers of distracted driving. They launched it on July 3, the anniversary of the day she died. With all the stuff going on in this family's life ... they also took the time, on July 3, Liz and I got a hand-written note from Rich.
Being on that bike was absolutely what Merritt wanted to do last summer. She knew that's where she was meant to be.
They've also worked with Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston on a scholarship program the church has in its umbrella that works with kids from the city who are eager to stay engaged with school and are willing to commit to an after school and summer program that will support them as they go through school.
These are kids in school districts that are less advantaged or disadvantaged. It's a support program for committed kids. They start in seventh grade and stay with them through 12th grade if they continue to stay committed. It's a very interesting approach to it. They just want to support kids who want to finish high school and want to go to college.
Q: Looking back to last July, to what extent did you have an action plan for the worst-case scenario, and to what extent did it work?
A: That's an interesting question because we had one. But there's this great quote, I think it's from Eisenhower before D-Day: 'Before a battle, preparation is everything. Once the battle has begun, preparation is nothing.' That's an exaggeration, but it makes the point that once this happened, we had to figure out how do we manage three things: 1. How do we handle the calls that are most important and require the most amount of thinking and reflection? So we closed off that room right there, and it was one person who was allowed in there, and that was the one person who made those key decisions — because remember, I was in Arkansas. That room was for calls from Merritt's family.
This room was focused on everyone else in that group.
The front room was for the rest of Overland: 1,740 kids. They're all managed in there. Close the doors and focus.
The action plan, the effort to make one, gave you confidence that once you got to having to handle an emergency, you had a framework, and that's what you stepped from.
Q: What was the closest to this event that you had in your experience prior to last July?
A: There were injuries ... but nothing even close to this.
This was a straight, flat, recently paved road with no traffic at all. You put a group of people on bikes, they're typically going to clump up in groups of two or three to chat. These guys were in a single file on the right hand side. Single file. Everything I ever asked of my leaders, they were doing, and yet this happened to them.
Over the years, we've had kids fall off bikes and break a list. Yesterday, a kid fell off a bike and seems to have injured her collar bone. We've had kids slip and fall on hiking trails. We've had kids in kitchens on language programs with cuts or burns. We've had one other person in 29 years until last summer be hit by a car and suffer significant injuries, but she's fully recovered. It was a serious back injury, but she's fine.
Q: So there was nothing in your experience that could have prepared you?
A: Not even close. But we had those kind of guiding principles we've always been focused on — that's why although it was extraordinarily difficult, it wasn't out of the realm of our human experience. We just had to be ourselves, like we normally are.
Even at the time I started. Imagine me at 26. I'm standing in front of a group of parents in Chevy Chase, Md. It's my first time talking to anybody about this thing I want to start. I want to do these trips. What did I know. I was 26. You think you're so old at 26, but you don't know anything. And the parents are all in their 40s, and yet they somehow trusted me. I think part of it is from the start I pulled no punches. I never said anything other than we are exactly who we are. I've always said this to parents: We are very good at what we do, but we are not perfect. Everyone needs to understand that. And if you can understand and accept that, let's talk about it.
That kind of forthright, honest, frank, transparent way of behaving has been part of us since 1984. So when the worst thing happens to you, you're just going to be like you've always been: open, honest, clear.
To learn more about Overland, visit www.overlandsummers.com. To read about Merritt Levitan and the foundation started in her honor, visit www.merrittsway.org. Read about what how a group of Williamstown business owners, inspired in part by Levitan's death, are combating the problem of distracted driving here.