November 17, 2019 is a date forever etched into the minds and hearts of the family of Chris and Brittany Hesling. It was the night their world turned upside down.
The Heslings, along with their children, 4-year old Jack and 6-month-old Maggie, were on the way back from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. A drunk driver hit their vehicle head-on, killing Chris and Brittany. The children were taken to the hospital, and it was later determined that the substantial damage that was done to Jack’s little body was not survivable. At 10:55 p.m. that night, Jack joined his parents, leaving his baby sister behind.
According to Chris’ cousin, Danielle Adams, who lives in Statesboro, Jack had just celebrated his birthday in October, and his mommy’s birthday was the day before the accident.
Chris and Brittany were high school sweethearts, and were chosen prom king and queen. Both Effingham County natives, he was a marketing director, and had served as a lifeguard and swim instructor at Splash in the Boro. She was a pre-K teacher at Kings Bay Naval Base.
“They had a rare and unique bond with one another that you hear about but seldom see,” Adams said. “Chris was a gentle giant, a big man with an even bigger heart. Brittany was kind of quiet, but she glowed with kindness and happiness.”
Adams says the couple didn’t seek attention, but seemed to have a gravitational effect on others — people were drawn to them. “And they were inseparable,” she added.
When Jack came along, he was the center of their world.
“They were just incredibly tight knit, and Jack wanted to be a part of that,” she said. Jack was a little cowboy, backyard soccer star, and aspiring Red Power Ranger. “He loved his parents and all things Disney, especially Buzz and Woody. He was a happy child in a loving home.”
His death, and those of his parents, devastated Adams and the rest of the family. Jack was an organ donor, and his kidneys were donated, but the family wanted to do something more in his honor. Chris’ parents, Kim and Floyd Justice, created Jack’s Journeys, a Facebook page that follows painted rocks created and placed in Jack’s honor.
“We had hoped to be able to continue to have fun with our grandson who means so much to us, and this is the only way we know how. We were talking about Jack, and how he and his parents would take little day trips to destinations unknown. We believe we have a platform, which is primarily friends and family, but has grown to over 500 members who are painting rocks and sharing where Jack has traveled vicariously with them,” said Floyd Justice. “If things had been different, this is what could have been. I can imagine Jack going to these places with his mom, dad and Maggie, and for a minute I can smile, imagining the memories being made.”
The page features the following information: “Jack’s parents were still young and always up for an adventure. Of course, no adventure was truly complete without their first-born and only son, sweet baby Jack. It seemed like they were always headed somewhere, together. As painful as it is, we know Jack is where he needs to be. He is with his Mommy and Daddy on the best adventure ever. HEAVEN! We, Jack’s family and friends, have decided to keep Jack’s memory and adventures alive by painting rocks and hiding them. Hopefully, with this page and your willingness to share, we’ll be tracking them to see where ‘they’ go on ‘their’ adventures.”
Jack’s Journeys works like this: Anyone who would like to is invited to paint a rock and hide it around town or when traveling. Each rock has an invitation on the back to keep or re-hide the rock, and post a photo on the Jack’s Journeys Facebook page.
So far, about 25 people have painted and placed rocks, but the numbers are growing with each rock that is found. The rock designs are incredibly diverse, and the ideas come from everywhere, Adams says.
“Some are sentimental, some are symbolic, and some are just silly fun. I’ve painted rocks to symbolize places or things important to the family, and I’ve painted some just to express whatever I was feeling at the time. The important thing is how it all ties back to Jack; each rock is a comment or a story or a thought or a smile, and this is how we get to share those moments with him,” she said.
Rocks have been placed from the coast to the mountains in Georgia, and are moving every day to new and different locations all over the country, and Adams says they have seen posts as far away as Hawaii and even Dubai.
“Chris and Brittany wanted to visit all 50 states. They were checking off states with every anniversary (married seven years). We want to make sure that we cover everything in the U.S.,” Adams says.
She invites anyone who would like to participate to simply pick up a paintbrush and have at it.
“The next time you go somewhere that brings you joy or happiness, paint a rock. Leave it there with a message. And if you find one, share,” she said.
The family says they plan to keep the effort up indefinitely.
““We hope that it never stops. We hope that we live vicariously through his journeys, to infinity and beyond,” Floyd Justice said.
Creating and placing the rocks has been incredibly healing for the family.
“I think happy thoughts when I am painting. I can take a break from the other thoughts, the sadness. It’s a chance for peace,” said Kim Justice.
Although their grief is still raw nearly two years after the accident, they find joy in caring for and loving Maggie, who turned 2 years old in May. She has three sets of grandparents in Effingham County, and has been adopted by her paternal grandfather and his wife.
“She is in the middle of a large, loving and devoted extended family, and gets to see all of her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on a regular basis,” Adams said.
The driver of the other vehicle, who was also killed in the accident, had a blood alcohol level of 0.19. Adams says that she’s sure he did not intend to kill anyone that night when he chose to drive.
“I don’t imagine that he thought he would die, either. But he did kill himself, and three other people — and orphaned an infant — because he chose to drink and get behind the wheel. Actions have consequences. He may not have intended to cause any harm, but he did. And we have to live with that. Whatever else he did in life, we will only ever remember that he ended the lives of Chris, Brittany and Jack because of a choice,” she said. “It was foolish. It was selfish. It was devastating. It was the last mistake he made, and one that he will never be able to make right. I hope that someone reading this will think twice before making the same choice. Make a plan. Call someone. Get an Uber. Just please don’t fool yourself with the thought that it can’t happen to you.”
Adams says that she’s sure that Chris, Brittany and Jack would have loved Jack’s Journeys, and that they would have been all in.
“(Chris and Brittany) would have pulled up a chair and asked for a paintbrush. I think that they would have loved it,” she said.
Adams says that she and her family are sure that the lives of others will be impacted by Jack’s story and by the journeys the rocks will take in his place. But she is also hopeful that it will serve as a warning about the consequences of drinking and driving.
“I hope that it’s raised someone’s awareness about the consequences of drinking and driving. I hope that it’s helped people with their own grief feel less isolated and alone,” she said. “I hope that it’s brought some smiles and laughter and conversation, and has reminded people to hold their loved ones a little closer. I hope that it’s reminded people to treat time with family like a gift. How can that be a bad thing?”