Hundreds of shoes, all shimmering white, gleamed in the Texas sun on a cloudless Tuesday morning just before noon, when David and Wendy Mills stepped over to the display.
On row after row, pairs of sneakers, boots, flip flops and high heels lined the bleacher-style build, all of them painted a pristine white, and reflecting the sun’s glow.
The Mills found a gap, reached down, and added another pair.
Their daughter’s running shoes, neon pink Nikes, shined just as poignantly as the others as the two embraced, and then stepped back to the lectern.
David and Wendy Mills, of Spring, spoke during a Texas Department of Transportation press conference Tuesday outside Medical Center Hospital in downtown Odessa, in front of the department’s traveling ‘ghost shoes’ display and as part of its Click It or Ticket campaign running this month.
The Mills’ daughter, Kailee Mills, was 16 when she died last October. She was ejected from a car during a rollover accident near her family’s home.
Kailee Mills was one of the 929 people in Texas who died last year in crashes that occurred when they were not wearing a seatbelt.
Tuesday, TxDOT’s traveling display of 929 white-painted pairs of ‘ghost shoes,’ designed to represent those 929 people, made its way to Odessa, with David and Wendy Mills joining the presentation and adding a pair of Kailee’s personal shoes to the display.
“Every one of these shoes belonged to somebody’s son or daughter or mother or father,” David Mills said shortly after the presentation. “They all have people that loved them and are impacted by them.
“It’s a simple thing to do — buckle your seatbelt.”
Tuesday’s event was organized as part of the annual Click It or Ticket campaign, running May 21 through June 3, during which TxDOT and other organizations are working with police and sheriff’s departments across the state to increase the use of seat belts, and raise awareness of statistics that point to the dangers of riding unbuckled.
While nearly a thousand unbuckled Texans died in traffic crashes last year, wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of dying in a crash by 45 percent, according to a TxDOT news release.
There were 48 unbuckled people who died in traffic crashes in TxDOT’s 12-county Odessa district last year, said district public information officer Gene Powell, who also spoke at the press conference along with Odessa police chief Michael Gerke and others.
“This presentation changes the game, because it’s so impactful,” Powell said.
“These ad agencies work hard to come up with something that sticks, and this one certainly makes the statement.”
Tuesday marked the Mills’ sixth chance to speak at events featuring the traveling display, they said. The Mills started a foundation shortly after their daughter’s death last year, which stresses the importance of wearing a seatbelt, and were glad to be part of Click It or Ticket events that share the same goal.
The Mills said Kailee was traveling with three friends on Halloween weekend last year, when she unbuckled to take a selfie with her friends in their costumes, before the accident. Kailee was the only unbuckled rider. The three others who had their seatbelts on survived the crash with only minor injuries.
The Kailee Mills Foundation puts together events near their home to raise awareness, while also raising money for scholarships and to support families who have lost loved ones.
“We just don’t want anybody else to have to go through what we’re going through,” David Mills said. “If we can be a part of that, that’s what we wanted to do.”
Powell said he was familiar with the Mills’ story before they spoke, but as he heard more details during their presentation, he was stirred by some coincidences and similarities.
Powell said his own daughter is 16 like Kailee was, that she likes Texas A&M like Kailee did, that she wants to be a dermatologist like Kailee wanted to be, and that she even likes the same mint green color that the Mills used for their foundation’s ribbons.
That, to Powell, validates that the campaign works and will resonate with many others like him throughout the state.
“It has to,” Powell said. “Anybody who’s got a teenage kid, it has to resonate with them.
“I don’t know how you can look at this display, and listen to that story, and have it not make sense.”
Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Sgt. Oscar Villarreal also spoke at Tuesday’s press conference, as did Alvin New, commissioner with the Texas Transportation Commission and Kathy Grove, trauma medical director with MCH.
Grove said seeing the tangible display was powerful to her, saying that the different sneakers, boots and sandals were a bit of a familiar sight for her and those that treat crash victims at the trauma center.
“The first thing that they do is, they come into the trauma bay and we take their clothes off, including their shoes,” Grove said. “You see the shoes like that, and you realize it represents a person — it’s pretty touching.
“If you go up there and look at some of the shoes, there’s kid shoes, grandparent shoes, mom shoes, dad shoes, sister shoes. It’s what we see every day.”