DODGE CENTER, Minn. - Emily Steffens was co-valedictorian of her high school class in Sleepy Eye, the lead of many school plays, and a cheerleader. She sang, played bassoon, and placed 1st in the state speech competition. She was going to attend St. Catherine's University in St. Paul, but one week after graduation, her life was changed forever. On her way home from class registration, an RV pulled out in front of the car she was in. The cars collided, and Emily was thrown into the front of the car because she was not wearing her seatbelt. Emily is now a 37-year-old woman living with a severe traumatic brain injury. Her right side is paralyzed, she is partially blind in each eye, and she has memory issues.
Two years ago, Emily began using her story to spread an important message about safe driving. She writes a weekly column titled 'It's my life' in the Byron Review and Star Herald. Her father, Larry Dobson, helps her write the column by asking her questions, but the words are Emily's own.
"Despite everything I've gone through, I am still a wonderful woman and that is always important," says Emily.
"I encouraged her to start the column because she talked about feeling like she didn't have any worth really," explains Larry Dobson.
"It gives Emily a feeling of purpose. She's making a difference," adds Emily's mother Melanie Dobson.
Emily's column and her advocacy earned her Toward Zero Death's 'Special Recognition Award' at TZD's conference in Mankato Tuesday and Wednesday. The audience gave her a standing ovation. The award is particularly special because TZD doesn't give it out every year.
"Through her community news column, as well as speaking in front of some of our traffic safety groups has really made a difference and motivated others to do good work," explains Statewide Toward Zero Deaths Coordinator Kristine Hernandez.
Emily's column's purpose is to brighten people's days and remind them how quickly a car crash can change a life.
"Live every day like it could be your last because someday it really will be your last. And always seat belt use... seat belt use is so very important," says Emily.
Albert Lea Police Leiutenant Jeff Strom received Toward Zero Death's 'Education Star Award.' He's active in the Freeborn County Safe Roads Coalition and is involved in a variety of safe driving educational efforts in the area. He takes part in safety events at local schools and organizes mock crashes and speakers. He also coordinates child passenger safety clinic and volunteers to teach a ;arhe part of the parent component of driver's education.