When Steve Augello talks about his daughter, his eyes pool with fresh tears, his cheek muscles tense up and his voice cracks. His grief over losing her at 17 is still deep, he said. But discussing the details that led to her death is part of his healing. And it may prevent another family from experiencing such a tragic and unnecessary end to a beautiful life that had barely begun.
On Wednesday, Augello stood in front of an assembly of mostly sophomores at Nature Coast Technical High School and described the events six years ago that took his daughter's life. She was hit while driving home from a school engagement by another teen who was texting at the wheel.
As part of the It Can Wait Campaign, launched by AT&T, Wednesday's event focused on the tragedy of texting and driving while encouraging each student in attendance to sign a pledge to not text and drive.
Augello retold his personal tragedy with poignant emotion, to a riveted student body.
The purpose, said Matt Mucci, spokesman for AT&T, was to encourage students to never text and drive and to sign a pledge, available at ATT.com, which they could then share on social media to help spread the word.
"The campaign started in 2009," Mucci said. "Since it has been going on for so long, it has become more of a reactive thing than a proactive thing."
Nature Coast Technical High School contacted Augello, who lives in Spring Hill, and asked if he would speak to the students about his experience.
"Steve contacted us," Mucci said. "Anytime we can partner to spread the word, we are doing it."
So far, AT&T has received about 2.5 million pledges, he said.
A video demonstration during the event was packed with stories from victims, providing strong evidence of the destructive path of texting and driving.
One woman was struck by an automobile while getting her mail. Her life changed in a split second, leaving her physically dependent. Another story told of a teen who struck and killed his victim after he sent a text.
"I don't even remember what I was texting," the teen said. "That's how important it was."
Augello has partnered with AT&T to spread the word that no message is more important than a life. He and his wife have had to pick up the pieces of their experience.
"It takes me about two weeks to recover from doing this," Augello said. "It rehashes everything. But it's so important that someone has to be out there doing it."
He summarized that fateful day in 2008 when his life changed forever.
"She was leaving school after (an event)," Augello said. "She called me to tell me she was on her way."
Twenty minutes later, his beautiful daughter was gone. The driver at fault was also killed.
"I went to (the other driver's ) funeral," Augello said, "because I am Catholic and I was brought up to forgive."
He was later contacted by the sister of the driver and asked to provide photographs of the tragic accident so she could help spread the word about the dangers of texting and driving.
Delivering the message to high school students, many who are at the threshold of getting behind the wheel, is important, Augello said. He also believes it is paramount that younger children be reached so they can learn better habits than many of the adults they might be mirroring.
Statistics sited at the presentation suggested that as many as 70 percent of young people report seeing their parents texting and driving.
Caitlyn Niedbala, an eleventh-grader at NCTHS, was already a believer in putting her phone away while driving.
"I've seen a car accident where a guy was thrown out of his car and resulted in his legs broken," Niedbala said. "When I went to go help the man, I saw that he still had his cell phone in his hand. That experience helped me get a better connection with the speaker."
Niedbala was impressed with the presentation.
"It's sad that this generation is so consumed by their phones that they can't put it down from one destination to the next," Niedbala continued. "I pledge to put my phone down while I drive and I hope the presentation helps everyone else to also."
Augello will never fully heal from that tragic day when his life changed forever. Yet he hopes his story can inspire even one student to put down their phone when driving.
"Put yourself in my shoes," he said. "You don't want to be in my shoes, trust me."
Email Hernando Today correspondent Kim Dame at firstname.lastname@example.org.