Courtesy Cecilia Williams Cecilia Williams with grandsons Mason (left) and Bentley
It's been more than a year since Cecilia Williams lost her son, his fiancé and her grandson to a crash police say was caused by a drunk driver, but she's reminded of them every day.
The memories are in the small things — like the random pencil she came across that she remembered her son, Cordell, once looking for. Or the corner of the yard in her Bonne Terre, Mo,. home where, one 4th of July, Cordell and his fiancée set off party poppers with their young boys. "When you lose a kid, you see them in everything," Cecilia tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.
Most of all, she's reminded by the faces and the questions of her two grandsons, Bentley, now 6, and Mason, now 4, who were orphaned by the crash and are now being raised by Cecilia and her husband Shawn. For months after losing his dad, mom and 4-month-old brother, Bentley would ask the same question over and over: "Do you think they're still dead?"
"We think they're doing okay," says Cecilia of the boys. "But then there are the hard moments. We all have a hard time every day."
Courtesy Cecilia Williams Mason (left) and Bentley Williams in September 2021 visiting a memorial at the Missouri crash site where their parents and brother were killed.
It's a pain that's all too common. In 2020, 11,654 people were killed in DUI crashes in the U.S.—that's one person every 45 minutes—leaving thousands of children without a parent. "I talked to so many people who'd say the same thing: The person that killed their family member didn't go to jail. When [the case] went to court, they would spend zero time, and they'd just get probation," Cecilia says.
So she decided she needed to do something to make would-be drunk drivers feel the lasting anguish of the loss of a loved one. She created Bentley's Law, a proposal that would force offenders to pay child support for kids left behind when a parent is killed in a drunk-driving crash. "Some people love money more than they do life. So the way to teach a person and to prevent them from becoming a repeat offender and putting another family through this was to create something where they will have to pay," she says.
"I want offenders to see how families truly suffer, how their actions affect everybody," she adds. "I'm hoping that it makes people think twice."
Since she began her push in the months after the crash—making calls and sending emails to legislators around the country on breaks between homeschooling her grandkids—Tennessee passed a bill modeled on hers, and at least 10 other states have introduced similar legislation.
"Cecilia's very quiet, very polite, but she's got a little fighter in her. She wants to make sure kids get what they need," says Missouri state representative Mike Henderson, who introduced a Bentley's Law bill earlier this year and hopes to see it pass in the next legislative session. If it does, however, it won't be retroactive. "Cecilia would not benefit from this," he says. "She's doing it for other people. She's fighting for what she thinks is right."
Courtesy Cecilia Williams
The mission has given Cecilia, who has partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, some sense of purpose amid the ongoing nightmare that began the night of April 13, 2021, when a state trooper came to her door to tell her that her son Cordell, 30, his fiancée Lacey Newton 25, and her infant grandson Cordell II had been killed. Cordell, who had planned to marry Lacey this September, and their baby had tagged along with Lacey on a delivery for a food service she worked for when they were hit. When Cecilia heard the news, "I remember screaming, screaming, screaming," she says. "It's been hell ever since."
It wasn't until the next day that she could face telling her grandsons, who had spent the night of the crash at her house, that the parents who loved taking them on spontaneous picnics and making s'mores over a bonfire were gone. "I said, 'God came and took your mom and dad and your baby brother to heaven.' And Bentley looked at me with such shock on his little face," Cecilia says.
For more on Cecilia's story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
Caring for her grandsons has been "a lot," admits Cecilia, who was already taking care of two other grandsons, but "they're what keeps us going."
Her work promoting Bentley's Law helps too. While they prepare for the trial of the driver charged in the death of Cordell, Lacey and Cordell II, expected in January, Cecilia, who started a GoFundMe page to help her legislative efforts, is determined to honor the family she's lost with action. "I'm not going to sit back and allow this to continue to happen to other families," she says. "We want to show the boys that something good can come out of bad. Otherwise all they will know is tragedy. I think Cordell and Lacey would be proud knowing that I'm not going to give up this fight."