Mother adopts highway to honor son’s life

Kim Szymanski picks up litter from the two miles of Highway 371 that she adopted in memory of her son, Jacob. Anza Valley Outlook/Courtesy photo

Grieving mother Kim Szymanski adopted a portion of Highway 371 to honor the memory of her son and his friend who both died in an accident three years ago on that section of the road.

Local news sources and social media reported that two men had been killed in Aguanga before dawn Tuesday, June 13, 2017, when their 2007 Mustang failed to negotiate a curve, struck a boulder and flipped, according to officials investigating the scene. The Mustang crossed into the opposing westbound lane and went off the north roadway edge. It struck the boulder about 25 feet off the roadway and overturned onto its roof.

The men were identified as Jacob Szymanski, 26, and Jonathan Barksdale, 28, both of Anza.

The community was devastated by the news. Szymanski said she was determined to prevent another tragedy, first attempting to have Caltrans install a guard rail at the location. When that failed, she turned to the Adopt-A-Highway program to keep the memory of her son alive.

“I fought for over a year to get a guardrail put in,” she said. “Had there been a guardrail, those young men might still be here today. I was told by one of the Caltrans employees that it could be revisited at another time, after more accidents have occurred. In the meantime, I was told I could possibly raise safety awareness on the highway by adopting a section.”

According to the Caltrans website, the Adopt-A-Highway Program provides an avenue for individuals, organizations, agencies or businesses to help maintain sections of roadsides within California’s state highway system. Groups can participate as volunteers or to hire a service contractor through the program to perform the work on their behalf. Groups that hire contractors are called sponsors. Adoption sites usually span a two-mile stretch of roadside and permits are issued for five-year periods.

Szymanski adopted the section of Highway 371 between mile markers 60 and 62, both east and westbound lanes.

“I can still remember every detail of that day,” she said. “It was the worst of my life. So I have adopted an area of the highway by the crash site. My son Jacob now has two signs on the highway to honor his memory. I have to do that because he is not here anymore to make new memories.”

With the help of her friend Anna Garcia, who also lost a child in a horrific car crash, they finished cleaning sections of the roadway recently.

“Along the way we came across many empty alcohol bottles, I couldn’t even keep track of how many we picked up. I can only imagine they are being tossed out as people are drinking and driving. My son has a cross off the highway because of drinking. Our dear friend Jon has a cross off the highway because of drinking. Both were wonderful young men that made a terrible choice, one that can’t be taken back. They didn’t think that choice would be the last one they would ever make,” Szymanski said.

She said she has received an outpouring of support for her endeavor.

“Many people have reached out to help,” she said. “I am touched and will definitely get a bigger group together next time. I am very thankful Caltrans has worked with me the only way that they are able to right now. I know it is a long process when it comes to highway improvements and safety. Road and accident history have to be researched. Engineers have to look at every little detail and see if it is possible to make changes that will improve things. Many factors come into play. There are definite flaws in the system, but they are doing their best while adhering to the rules and policies that they have to follow. Thank you again Caltrans for making this possible.”

A flower memorial dedicated to the young men is located at the crash site and is clearly visible from the roadway.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at