Hillsborough's MADD co-founder moved by honor for sister

Linda Unfried expected an emotional night.

Last week, the co-founder of Hillsborough County's Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter came to support the Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies who would man a driving under the influence checkpoint at the Brandon intersection of State Road 60 and Parsons Avenue.

She arrived with a heavy heart. The site brought back memories of the grim August 2007 death of sheriff's Sgt. Ronald Harrison, who was shot by an assailant after working a DUI checkpoint at the same intersection.

"That was the last time we worked together," said Unfried, who often leads her organization in bringing food to the officials manning the checkpoints. "He walked me to my car that night."

The emotion, however, proved greater than she ever expected. The officials, which also included members of the Florida Highway Patrol and Tampa police, surprised Unfried by dedicating the checkpoint to her late sister, Josie DiStefano Palomino.

Palomino died 28 years ago at the intersection of Waters Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway because of the carelessness of a drunken driver.

Col. Greg Brown, head of the Department of Patrol Service, and members of the HCSO DUI Squad presented Unfried with a plaque in honor of her sister.

"It really was something special," Unfried said. "I was at a loss for words. I started crying. It's very, very meaningful.

"To have it dedicated to someone whose life is lost is very important."

For some, dealing with the death of a loved one involves chasing away the memories. Or perhaps those grieving choose to rekindle only the good times, never wanting to recall how a senseless act ended all the joyful moments .

Unfried easily could have embraced such sorrow. Although they were six years apart, she shared a special bond with her sister, and she concedes that even after 28 years she's still coping. Her parents, she says, never got over Palomino's death.

Yet Unfried chose to channel that sadness into something positive. Six months before Palomino died, the two sisters watched a movie about Candy Lightner, the California woman who started MADD after losing her daughter in a drunken driving accident.

"We called each other after that and said, 'Let's do this. Let's help MADD,' " Unfried explained. "She died six months later. I had no choice but to make the commitment."

This is why the dedication held so much importance to Unfried. DUI checkpoints, which the Sheriff's Office always advertises through media outlets, not only raise awareness, they save lives.

They remind us we're responsible for our choices, and the potential consequences can't be ignored.

For Unfried, every time her work with MADD diminishes drinking and driving or helps a family cope, she feels her sister didn't die in vain.

"She gave me this plaque, Footprints, about how God carries you (through difficulties)," Unfried said. "That has gotten me through losing her. The Lord did carry me through. He led me to start MADD and help other people get through it."

But it still hurts.

The day after the checkpoint dedication, Unfried's husband found a small book she had received from Palomino in the garage. The book expressed the love between sisters: birthday party memories, shared secrets, wanting to be like each other.

At the end, Palomino thanked Unfried for being a "super sister" and signed it "Love, Josie."

That's all I'm saying.

Hillsborough's MADD co-founder moved by honor for sister 02/02/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2012 3:30am]

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