Young Conservationist remembered at two events


Justin Mitchell with a snake - his favorite wildlife

Justin Mitchell was remembered for his love of wildlife and nature at two Viera events in April, capping off months of preparation for a mother who lost her only son and his best friend last April.

The inaugural Charlie Corbeil Conservation Awards April 25 at the Holiday Inn Melbourne-Viera Conference Center honored Mitchell and Corbeil, a Florida master naturalist and nature photographer who died last fall, and presented awards to the families of Mitchell and Corbeil, as well as annual awards to 10 individuals who also made a difference in “helping man live in harmony with nature.”

The following day, they both were honored at the eighth annual Viera Wetlands Nature Festival, where 25-year-old Mitchell spent countless hours waiting and watching for untold species of wildlife, even rare animals like river otters and great bald eagles that seemed magically to appear for him. Corbeil was one of the original volunteer docents to help visitors find their way around the 200-acre series of retention ponds that has become a worldwide birding and wildlife attraction for photographers and eco-tourists.

The gesture was appreciated, said Kim Wright, Mitchell’s mother and sole surviving family, but oddly, not therapeutic.

“It doesn’t make it better. Nothing makes it better. The only way I’m getting through this is that even though it’s a year now, it still does not seem real. It just does not make any sense. I’m very glad folks did what they did, though. I’m very, very appreciative.”

Mitchell had just graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in wildlife, ecology and conservation and returned home to Brevard to find his old friends had scattered, but was thrilled to reconnect with an old buddy, Garrett Viccaro. He had recently graduated college as well, and already was at work in his field.

Mitchell had just celebrated his 25th birthday, and Viccaro was about to turn 25, so they both went night fishing to celebrate on the Eau Gallie Causeway bridge in Indian Harbour Beach. A driver was looking at his cell phone and his vehicle veered onto the shoulder, killing both young men.

“Just two buddies, out celebrating their birthdays, had their young, promising lives stolen from them,” said Viccaro’s mother, Trisha Viccaro. The mothers and their family members and friends became incensed when the judge gave the driver a mere $169 ticket and suspended license. The driver also was ordered to perform community service projects selected by survivors, including building a memorial at the Viera Wetlands for Mitchell. Vicarro chose an “It Can Wait” campaign to discourage drivers from texting while behind the wheel.

While Vicarro is pouring her rage into the campaign to keep others safe, Wright is having trouble finding any anger at all.

“I am so numb, I don’t even know how I feel. A lot of people are more angry about Justin than I am. It’s just such a crazy, stupid thing to happen that makes no sense at all. Anger definitely is easier to feel than grief,” Wright said.

Sitting in the Viera Wetlands gazebo that is now part of a memorial for her son, Kim Wright shows a picture of a young Justin Mitchell and an award-winning photo he shot there of a river otter

While grief counseling is part of her job as a caretaker to aging seniors, whose term of service always ends with the patient’s death and the comforting of family members, her son’s death has sent Wright on an unending quest to grief experts of all types to help make sense of the tragedy.

“Oddly enough, I went on a whim to a psychic and she gave me the simplest, most basic advice that was more grief counseling than fortune telling,” Wright said. “She said, ‘You have to accept what has happened or you will continue to suffer.’ I’m not there yet.”