by Melissa Nordell
Garison Steele, 14, was an energetic teen with a big heart for evangelism. Concerned that all of his friends would accept Christ and be in heaven with him later in life, Garison had prayed for months that his friend Troy would visit his family’s church, Joyful Sound in Porter, Texas, northeast of Houston. Troy accepted Garison’s invitation, partly to return many favors Garison had shown him.
At the end of the church service at Joyful Sound Church, Troy came forward to accept Christ as his personal savior. Garison was ecstatic, and after the service the boys asked if they could go to a local gas station less than a mile from the church. “I told him he better drive safe,” Garison’s mother, Betsy Steele, told Troy. “He was carrying my life with him.”
It was Garison’s first ride with a young, non-family driver. As he was leaving, Garison remembered he forgot to say goodbye, so he rushed back to the church, told his mom he loved her and kissed her on the cheek.
But it seemed to be taking a long time for the boys to return, so Betsy and Garison’s Aunt Jeannie phoned Garison on his cell phone — but there was no answer. Alarmed, Betsy and Jeannie got into Betsy’s car and traced the route Garison would have taken to the gas station.
The two sisters soon saw fire engines, police, and other first responders a very short distance from the church. Behind the fire engines was a lone car wrapped around a tree, barely recognizable, which happened to be in the front yard of the house where Pastor Betsy and Garison’s father had been married.
Betsy tried to get to the vehicle as soon as she recognized it, remaining calm but praying for life, as she asked the police about her son. However, the police restrained her because Betsy’s only son and his newly saved friend were killed instantly in the horrific crash.
First responders and neighbors began to ask Betsy, “Who was the third person in the car?” Several people reported they were sure that they had seen a third person when the car crashed. But there were only two boys in the car!
Betsy, Jeannie, and Grandmother Sally are convinced that the third person was Jesus Himself. Both boys were carried to heaven in Jesus’ loving arms.
Investigators determined that Troy lost control of the vehicle when he hit a culvert at a high rate of speed, then the vehicle went airborne. The speedometer inside the vehicle was stuck on 84 mph.
“The boys both wore their seat belts, and alcohol and other drugs were not factors,” Betsy said. “It was just a young driver with his friend in the car making a bad decision.”
Like many parents, Betsy had no idea that car accidents were the leading cause of death for teens. However, statistics show that crashes account for more teen deaths than suicide and homicide combined. Drivers aged 16 to 19 are three times as likely to crash as more experienced drivers. Plus carrying passengers exacerbates those statistics. Only one teen passenger can increase crash risk by 48 percent.
With forgiveness, and after a few years of healing, Garison’s grandmother, Sally Pritchard, Senior Pastor of Joyful Sound Church, felt the Lord calling them to do something about these statistics. The family wants not only to save lives but to reach out and tell others about the saving love of Jesus Christ to honor young Garison, his life gone too soon.
They soon joined the Teen Safe Driving Coalition and the HEARTS Network, both established by The Allstate Foundation and the National Safety Council. They also started a driving school, along with a “Garison Steele Safe Driver Elite Award,” an annual scholarship whose theme is “Steering Teens in the Right Direction.” The scholarships award teens who demonstrate safe driving based on recommendations from adults, writing a winning essay on responsible driving, and demonstrating a good example for their peers.
They named the school “G and P Community Driving School” after Garison and his “Papaw,” grandfather and Senior Pastor Harley Pritchard who graduated to heaven a few years after Garison. Harley had taught Garison about fixing cars and welding. Together they had won “Best of Show” in the Houston Car Show with their jointly restored ’63 Mustang.
“Parents need to prepare their teens and make sure they demonstrate good driving habits,” Betsy said. “Even good teens make bad choices, and one wrong decision could take their teen forever.”
Turning a tragedy into marketplace ministry, they expect the scholarship and school will save lives and honor the memory and testimony of Garison Steele. At an annual church ceremony in his honor, his mother, Betsy, testified that Garison “carried the light of God’s love everywhere he went, and many hearts were changed.”
Betsy says that at first she wondered “why God would want me to go outside the church, but then one day while worshiping, I felt that God said I would reach teens that would never set their feet into a church and I would be able to show and demonstrate God’s love, joy, peace, and saving grace to those teens and their parents…and that is exactly what happened.”
Pastor Betsy used the scripture 1 Peter 2:9 for the award ceremony: “that we may proclaim the love and praise of God who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous LIGHT.” Along with his family, Garison’s life has proven to be a legacy for saving many lives, both in the physical and for eternity to come.