Road to forgiveness: The Meagan Napier Foundation

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WALTON COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Many times forgiveness is hard to come by, especially when tragedy strikes.

Sixteen years ago, Eric Smallridge made what he says was the worst decision of his life.

"The night of the accident I was with some friends at a bar and I was 24years old so I really thought I had my alcohol consumption levels under control. I thought I knew my limits and so when it came time to leave the bar I thought I was perfectly fine to operate a vehicle and on the way home I learned different," said Smallridge.

It was a decision that cost the lives of two young women.

May 11, 2002, 20-year-olds, Meagan Napier and Lisa Dixon were killed by a drunk driver.

"I remember very vividly standing on the side of the road watching as the officers pulled a white sheet out of their vehicle and put it over Lisa's car which Meagan and Lisa were still inside," Smallridge described.

"My life was just completely devastated," Meagan's mother Renee Napier Lord said.

Smallridge was sentenced to 22 years behind bars; 11 years for each woman.

After coming to grips with his new reality and the consequences, Smallridge said he took a leap of faith.

"I knew nothing I said or did could ever make up for what I had done but I wanted to reach out to them," he said.

"Through time and prayer and forgiveness, I knew he was remorseful and he finally took responsibility for what he had done," Renee said.

Despite a painful loss, Renee found a new purpose behind the tragedy and started the Meagan Napier Foundation.

"It truly was my worst nightmare coming true and by being able to forgive Eric, I was able to shift my focus," she said, "I could hate him forever but Meagan and Lisa are not coming back."

She began spreading their story across Florida.

"In 2010 Renee actually petitioned the Department of Correction [for me] to actually join her as an inmate so that both sides of the story can be told and hopefully further impact our audiences," Smallridge said.

She said that decision set her free and she wanted to do the same for Eric.

"We went before the judge and asked him to change his sentences to concurrent so he could get out after 11 years," Renee said.

"You just lost your daughter, your sister, your loved one. How could you possibly forgive me? And they did and I was really blown away and really wanted to try and understand where the forgiveness came from," Smallridge.

After serving nine and a half years, the judge granted their request, and now the two of them have a bond like no other.

"Renee and I are like family. She has a son that is my age and I would say family is here and I'm right below it," Smallridge said with a gesture. "I mean, she calls me part of the family."

"We've got a really close relationship and I've grown to love him and he loves me," Renee added.

"We don't focus on the negative, we don't focus on what was, the things we can't change. We focus on the things we can change together," Smallridge explained.

They say they truly believe one mistake does not define you, but the choices you make afterward do.

"Meagan and Lisa didn't die in vain. That their lives are still touching others," Smallridge said.

Since beginning their mission, Renee and Eric have spoken in all 67 Florida counties. Now, they're spreading their wings across the country, hoping to impact as many people as they can.