Reactions Vary to Kerry Rose Foundation Billboard

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Returning to college for a new semester is a time for students to reconnect with friends and start fresh with new coursework. Though for Marist College, the start of the spring 2012 semester was marked with tragedy. On Jan 21, 2012, a fire occurred in an off-campus home that claimed the lives of Kevin Johnson, Eva Block and Kerry Fitzsimons. Friends, family and the entire college community mourned the loss of the three young adults.

In response to the incident, a foundation was created in honor of one the victims, Kerry Fitzsimons. Fitzsimons, 21, was a senior at Marist studying biomedical science and held a promising future. In her honor, the Kerry Rose Foundation was created. As stated on the foundation website, www.kerryrosefoundation.org, its mission is “to raise awareness of fire safety on and off campus, specifically the importance on fire sprinklers, and to disseminate information to students regarding their rights in off campus housing.” Maryanne Fitzsimons, Kerry’s mother and foundation president, explains the non-profit organization’s main intention is to keep college students safe. (Fitzsimons declined a further interview.)

Advertising tactics have been used in order to spread awareness of the foundation. One in particular has grasped the attention of the Marist student body. A large billboard on West Cedar St., across from the Lower West Marist off-campus housing, features the foundation’s advertisement. A recent picture of Kerry Fitzsimons is shown with accompanying text reading “Does your college housing have a fire spring system? Kerry’s did not.” This area is known to be frequented by many college students, insuring that the billboard will be viewed regularly.

Being that this billboard is a large reminder of a very painful memory, it consequently brings about the question of appropriateness. Yes, most students and faculty members have agreed that this foundation is a good cause and exemplifies a positive mission. Though, being that the advertisement is so close to the site of the fire, is its location appropriate? Depending on individual outlooks, a range of responses have been shared.

Because two of the victims were Marist students, the college faculty has been affected by the incident as well.  Deborah Dicaprio, Vice President/Dean of Student Affairs, says she can understand both sides of the story. “If I was a student, the billboard would definitely be a painful memory. Though, as a teaching moment, I could understand the foundation’s decision to put the billboard there. How impactful would it be if you put it in the middle of nowhere? It was done strategically. By putting it so close, it will get noticed more and the point to take safety precautions will be taken. It is unfortunate that it may cause some students to suffer, but out of tragedy comes precautions so things that happened may not happen again,” Dicaprio said.

This point is true. After the fire, many off campus houses made sure to equip their home with fire alarms to ensure their safety. Marist also put together a list of precautionary measures that were emailed to the student body. Though the foundation is targeted to the Marist community, the billboard was posted without affiliation to the college. “I was told it was there and now I’ve seen it,” said John Gildard, Director of Safety and Security. “Though, we haven’t had any contact with the foundation about their goal. As far as a public response, our office hasn’t been contacted about it either,” Gildard said. (When asked about his personal reaction to the billboard, Gildard declined giving a statement.)

Because the victims attended Marist, the students have also formed their own personal reaction to the billboard’s prominent location. Robert Peterpaul, a junior at Marist, currently lives in the Lower West housing, directly across the street from the advertisement. “I see the billboard pretty much every day, and I think it is a painful reminder for some. But overall, I think it’s a great way to remind everyone to be safe. I think it is truly inspiring that the family has taken something so terrible and developed a positive message for others,” Peterpaul said. Sophomore student, Samantha Fusco, agrees and appreciates the positive message the foundation created. “It is nice to know Kerry didn’t die in vain. It seems she is making a difference and will possibly prevent tragedies that could happen in the future,” Fusco said.

While some appreciate the billboard’s positive message, it seems like it is the seniors, the current class that both Fitzsimons and Block would be graduating with, who feel the most bothered. “The billboard is very large and put in a spot surrounded by Marist students. It makes me a bit uncomfortable and I think that the people that were very close to her and others directly affected would be upset,” said senior student, Alessandra Mazzella. It appears that the view is widely held amongst senior students. Even those who were not personally close with the victims feel the billboard would upset her closest friends that still attend Marist.

Hailey Petrini is one of these students, as she was Fitzsimons best friend and lived in the house the fire took place in. “I think the people, like me, who were directly affected are weirded out by it,” Petrini said.  “It’s just…so soon. I think the better thing that should be been done was to have waited until after our class graduated. That way, the foundation’s message could still be there for the student body, but it wouldn’t be such an intense reminder. I’m not upset that it’s there, I just don’t think it is appropriate because it is so in my face. It almost makes it hard because I, and other students, are forced to remember. Again, it’s a great place, but it could have waited a year or two,” Petrini said.

It has been almost 10 months since the tragic fire. The Marist college community will always remember that day and the three victims that were lost. The Kerry Rose Foundation looks to create a mission that ensures safety and precaution in the college community. If this message is kept alive, while the victims may be lost, they are sure to never be forgotten.

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