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Three Mothers Turn Tragedy Into Inspiration

May 01, 2016 07:42PM ● By Alison Clary

Dena Betti with daughter Jenna, Debbie Smith with son Matt, and Jackie Hopkins with daughter Kate. Photo by Susan Wood Photography

In this Mother’s Day issue we honor Dena Betti, Jackie Hopkins, and Debbie Smith, MM, women who have gone through insurmountable tragedy after losing children in the prime of their lives. Despite ongoing grief, they have emerged with newfound wisdom, productivity, a strength they never knew they had, and yes, even optimism and joy in life. All three women have had to grieve fairly publicly, but by turning the spotlight onto worthwhile causes, they inform the public while finding greater peace in their lives.


No one can forget hearing about Jenna Betti, the 14-year old girl from Martinez who was tragically struck by a train in Martinez two years ago. Or Kathryn (Kate) Hopkins, the young Martinez woman, just 20 years old, who died after a longboard accident in Yosemite while on spring break from college, also two years ago. Or Matthew Carrington, the 21-year old man from Pleasant Hill who died after a horrific night of initiation during “Hell Week” at a college fraternity in 2005. You wonder how the mothers and families of these shining young citizens of our community move forward when their precious children left us far too soon. They had so much to accomplish, so much life to live, so much more love to give and receive. These three mothers loved their children fiercely, with unwavering devotion, and they continue to honor them tirelessly through their dedication to various organizations.


Dena and Jenna Betti - #HERSMILE

Jenna Betti


The moment Jenna passed away, her mother, Dena, said she knew she had to do something purposeful, and 2 ½ months after, her vision became crystal clear. After the outpouring of love and support from the community, even strangers, she wanted to pay it forward. With the help of friends Suzy Hammond and Amber Cole, Dena started #HERSMILE, a non-profit organization that supports families who have lost a dependent child or a parent with dependent children to unexpected tragedy. #HERSMILE was named in reference to Jenna’s brilliant smile when Dena began corresponding on social media after the accident. Dena describes Jenna as “the kind of girl who commanded the attention of a room. She was fun and very funny. She had amazing energy and was the spark plug of our household.”


The mission of #HERSMILE is “to bring hope, strength and inspiration to those who have experienced a tragedy by designing and presenting learning opportunities in a way that helps individuals develop and improve the power of their mindset and/or by extending monetary gifts.” In some instances, proceeds from the sale of branded apparel might help families who cannot bear the brunt of funeral expenses. The 2nd Annual Jenna Betti Memorial Golf Tournament this past March raised over $34,000, which will help fuel Dena’s drive to help more families in the greater Bay Area. A current goal is to reach more people through school assemblies. She wants to make “hersmile” a household name. In 2015, #HERSMILE helped thirty families, and so far this year they’ve helped eight. Dena says it breaks her heart that by the time people read this article there will be more.


One of Dena’s favorite things about her daughter is “how deeply she loved. Love is powerful and there are no guarantees in life, but the true power of life is derived from what you create with the hand you’ve been dealt. We choose to live in a space of gratitude and refuse to let anger, disenchantment and darkness drive the direction of our lives.” Dena and her husband, Paul, have two other daughters, Jenna’s younger sisters, Julia, age 14, and Gigi, age 11.


Jackie and Kate Hopkins - Donor Network West


After her daughter Kate’s death, Jackie Hopkins said the pain was so raw and numbing, she felt helpless. For a long time her motto was “Fake it ‘til you make it,” but she eventually realized that was not true or productive and that happiness would have to come from within. Jackie says, “I was lucky to have a daughter who was always joyful…she would not want anyone to be paralyzed by sadness.” Jackie realized helping others would help her. Jackie describes Kate as hugely generous with her love, affection, and friendship to the end, and she gave the ultimate gift of life to people she never met through organ donation; one man received her heart and one kidney, a woman received her other kidney and her pancreas, and yet a third person received her liver. The Hopkins family has met the man who received Kate’s healthy young heart and kidney, and he continues to correspond with them regularly.


Inspired to spread the word about organ donation, Jackie became an ambassador for Donor Network West, located in San Ramon. A natural introvert, Jackie has been thrust into the world of public speaking, making presentations to middle schools, high schools, colleges, and various groups and organizations. She wants people to know that more than 120,000 people are on the waiting list for organs in the United States, and the simple act of registering can change lives. Amazingly, one person’s organs can save eight lives. Additionally, bone, skin, and various tissues can be used. One of Jackie’s goals is to dispel misconceptions about organ donation. She doesn’t shy away from addressing concerns people may have about being in the hospital in critical condition, explaining that two different medical doctors must evaluate a patient 6 to 8 hours apart before deciding brain death has occurred and he or she can be a potential organ donor. She says all of her family and most of her friends are now organ donors too, and you can register once you turn 18 years old. Jackie and her husband, Jim, also have a son, Kate’s younger brother, Clint, age 20. Jackie also happens to be on the #HERSMILE outreach committee.


Debbie Smith, MM, and Matthew Carrington - AHA! Movement


Debbie Smith, MM, founded the AHA! Movement (Anti-Hazing Awareness), a non-profit organization created in memory of her son Matt Carrington. Debbie and her team present programs to young people, teaching them what hazing is, educating them on alternatives, and striving to change the culture of organizations that participate. As defined by Wikipedia: “Hazing is the practice of rituals and other activities involving harassment, abuse or humiliation used as a way of initiating a person into a group.” Long associated with the Greek system (college fraternities and sororities), hazing occurs as early as elementary school, and can be found in gangs, sports teams, military units, and other social groups, “even the workplace,” adds Debbie. She makes it a point to distinguish bullying from hazing, saying ruefully: “You bully the people you don’t like and haze the people you do.” She is adamant in reminding people: “Friends don’t disrespect you. You can say no and walk away.”


After Matt died, seven fraternity members from Chico State University were convicted of charges ranging from misdemeanor hazing to felony involuntary manslaughter, the first felony charges associated with hazing in the United States. Wishing to prevent others from suffering what she has had to endure, Debbie spearheaded efforts that resulted in the passage of Matt’s Law, which allows for felony prosecution when hazing results in serious injury or death and permits prosecutors to charge individuals with hazing, even if they are not students. Debbie is especially proud of attaining non-profit status for her organization this year.


Remembering her precious son, she says, “Matt was a kind and generous person with a great sense of humor and infectious smile. He never turned down a challenge or the opportunity to help anyone in need, whether he knew them or not.” Debbie always signs her name “Debbie, MM”; the moniker stands for Matt’s Mom. She and her husband, Greg Smith, live in Pleasant Hill, and Matt’s younger brother, Travis, is now 25 years old and lives in Antioch.


Moving Forward

After meeting all three women together, I thought about the common thread they shared. Over and over, I heard them say they chose gratitude for the good in life, and they are all very spiritual in their beliefs. Dena says coping without the physical presence of her daughter Jenna has been the ultimate test for the Betti family, but consciously choosing to live in a space of love instead of darkness and anger is what guides them. Dena says, “There’s a difference between loss and suffering.” Jackie agrees and adds, “It does pull you in sometimes; you just can’t stay there. It’s easier if you remember what you do have to be thankful for.” They concede that they will never see their children graduate from college or get married or have children, yet Dena asks rhetorically, “Would we have not wanted to have had our children? Isn’t that the alternative? It’s about gratitude. Jenna was a 14-year gift.” Dena says she continues to learn how differently people mourn and there is no right or wrong way. “This life altering experience has emotionally and spiritually broken me open. I have done things now I never knew I would be doing, but they are all beautiful and fill my soul.” She says she used to be more focused on striving to excel in business and pushed herself in that area, but she looks more inwardly now for guidance and does journaling and meditation.


Despite the devastating loss of her firstborn son, Debbie says she “brings a message of hope, even if you are in the deepest darkest depths of depression, believing there is no way out because your pain is so great. One day you will be okay, because I am. It’s not going to happen overnight, it could take years, but knowing is half the battle.” As Jackie says, “Grief becomes a part of who you are. I am not the same person I was two years ago. I am softer, yet stronger, and more forgiving. There is a new lightheartedness in me because of the deep sadness I have felt. I welcome all of life’s lessons because they all lead to growth. Each day, I make a conscious decision to find positive things to be thankful for instead of remembering what is missing. Through it all, I hear Kate's voice in my head saying, ‘You can do it Mom!’” Jackie recalls one of Kate’s favorite quotes from Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”


For more information on the above organizations visit:



Oasis Veterinary Pet Adoption Connection


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