When Jennifer Neville-Lake remembers her children, Daniel, Harrison and Milly, there is a sense of deep grief and sorrow, mixed with pride and love.
All three of Neville-Lake’s children, and her father, Gary Neville, were killed in a horrific impaired driving crash just north of Toronto in September 2015.
The driver, Marco Muzzo, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, along with a 12-year driving prohibition, in March 2016 and will be seeking full parole this month.
It has taken years, but Neville-Lake is finally able to talk openly, on occasion, about her children, and smile.
On what would have been her eldest son Daniel’s 15th birthday, Neville-Lake is honouring him in a way he would have loved.
“My son came to me when he was six years old and he asked me just randomly one day when I picked him up from daycare, he said, ‘Mom, can I do ballet?'” she recalled.
He started taking classes with the City of Brampton Recreational Dance program in 2012 and every year on Mother’s Day weekend, Neville-Lake remembered watching him perform ballet on stage.
“It just made him so happy … He absolutely loved it,” she said.
A few years after his death, Neville-Lake learned the number of boys graduating from Canada’s National Ballet School outnumbered girls for the first time ever.
She decided to approach the board of Many Hands, Doing Good, the organization she founded in response to the support the community brought forward following the crash, and asked members to consider pursuing a partnership with Canada’s National Ballet School to provide funding in honour of Daniel.
As a result, the Daniel Neville-Lake fund has been created to encourage boys up to nine years of age to explore their passion for the art of ballet and to encourage their participation in dance classes at the National Ballet School by removing financial barriers.
“We are beyond excited as the board and as a community that … other little boys under nine are going to be able to do exactly what Daniel did and for a lot longer, hopefully,” said Haze Schepmyer, vice-president of Many Hands, Doing Good.
“To think about a young man like Daniel who had such a passion for ballet … for his passion to be something that now lives on and on through the legacy we created … that’s something that just is a really beautiful testament to a young man’s passion,” said John Dalrymple, executive director of Canada’s National Ballet School.
Neville-Lake said she always envisioned her son joining the National Ballet School one day.
“One of the things that I do a lot is imagine who they would be today and I can really see him at the National Ballet School,” she said. “To know that another child is being helped through one of my children’s passions, that means so much to me.”
Neville-Lake said she is grateful for the support of her community and strangers, who keep her going.
“Those messages of love and support, those little things that I can read, I can touch, to know that people are thinking about us and sending us positive thoughts and vibes and prayers… it means so very much,” she said.
In a few days, Neville-Lake will participate virtually in the parole hearing for Muzzo, the impaired driver convicted in the crash that killed her children and father and gravely injured her mother and grandmother.
In April, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, families of victims were initially shut out of virtual parole hearings.
Neville-Lake took to social media in outrage and the Parole Board of Canada eventually reversed its decision.
“There’s a lot of the things that victims are now able to do, like attend hearings virtually, not just through the telephone. Those are things that a lot of people worked on. And it’s good to know that my fight is also their fight,” she said.
“I’ve been able to connect with victims that are survivors that are willing to talk with me and we share experiences… It’s like this growing resource pile that we’re creating… It’s almost like you need a Parole Board of Canada and Corrections Canada guide for victims in simple, plain language to understand.”
The parole hearing is still days away, but on Feb. 3, a day Neville-Lake should be celebrating her son Daniel’s birthday, she will brave the cold to sit beside his ‘forever bed’ and remember how he loved to dance.