Thursday, July 19, 2018
Public safety

Mission of Miss Buckle-Up Princess emerges from an accident

Ani Hudgens began to seethe as the car in front of her on Bloomingdale Avenue weaved in and out of its lane.

Her outrage grew when the car came to a stop at the corner of Bloomingdale and Kings Avenue and she realized the driver did not have her young child firmly secured in a child safety seat.

She wanted to confront the driver.

"My husband, Chris, did not let me get out of the car," Hudgens said. "That's what saved her."

Hudgens' emotions that day in 2013 might seem a bit extreme, but they were fueled by her own life-changing experience.

In May 2010, Hudgens was involved in a horrific rollover accident in Pasco County near where interstates 75 and 275 meet. The crash left her with traumatic brain injury, profound hearing loss and frequent seizures.

Despite the hardships, she knew she survived because she was wearing a seat belt. That realization would become the driving force in a new mission for Hudgens — thanks to Chris, whom she calls her "No. 1 supporter."

After they witnessed the rambling driver, her husband told her: "You have a voice and a story to share. Do something about it."

Hudgens, who previously worked as a human resources professional, took the challenge. She developed a program to encourage seat belt safety by creating a team of youth advocates. Now, her alter ego, a puppet named Princess Becky Buckle-Up, performs for kindergarten, first- and second-grade students. The princess promotes seat belt use and encourages students to not only use their own child safety seats but to urge their parents to buckle up.

"When someone survives this type of accident or had any kind of traumatic experience, you can't help but think, 'Why me?' " said Hudgens, 47. "But my heart tells me God put this in my path. For whatever reason, it was meant for me to survive this accident and do what I'm doing now."

Since she launched the program in May 2013, her accident anniversary, Hudgens has performed for hundreds of kids at schools, churches and civic groups around Tampa Bay and in eight other states. Hudgens is not a ventriloquist, but with the help of Mach One Productions, she uses recorded responses in the Miss Buckle-Up Princess Seatbelt Safety Program.

Along the way, Hudgens entered the America's Super Pageant that gives contestants a platform to promote seat belt safety. She eventually won and became the organization's International Super Mrs. 2014.

"The program has just grown so much, and it's been so amazing," Hudgens said Tuesday after performing at a local La Petite Academy. "The reaction I've gotten from children and parents is beyond any dream I could have imagined."

Using the program, she has weighed in as a lobbyist in Tallahassee, joining the Florida Child Safety Initiative Coalition to push for stronger child safety laws.

Advocates said Florida had the weakest child passenger safety laws in the country, allowing children who were 4 and 5 to wear only seat belts.

But beginning Jan. 1, booster seats are required for kids up until their sixth birthdays. Hudgens believes the laws should incorporate height and weight, but she's pleased with the change.

She's also pleased with the second chance life has given her. Before the accident, she ran in races and triathlons. Last year, she and Chris donned tutus and walked the 2014 Disney Princess 5K, but if she could do just one more triathlon, she would be happy.

Meanwhile, she will continue on with Princess Becky Buckle-Up. Hudgens, a Cuban-American, will add a second princess, Sofia Cinturon (the Spanish word for belt), to reach Hispanic students. She hopes to turn the program into an official nonprofit and seek donations to cover the cost of new recordings and more appearances.

More than anything, she wants to help families avoid what she's gone through in the years since her accident.

Frankly, I'm going to buckle up because I don't want her to be tempted to get out and challenge me.

That's all I'm saying.

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