“It all happened so fast,” Geronemus, 37, tells PEOPLE. “It’s not a death that you’re prepared for. There’s no good way to lose someone but you can’t even figure out why everything is happening…I remember seeing my friends from high school at the funeral and I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It was too much to handle.”
A representative from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) had reached out to offer support but it wasn’t until a couple of months after her father’s death that was she able to reach back. Nancy Leffel, a MADD victim advocate, stayed with her through the trial, helping her face her father’s killer in court.
“After I got through the trial, it really stuck with me what that woman did for me and what that organization did for me and also that here in Broward County that conversation wasn’t really happening,” says Geronemus, a media/community relations manager for Ultimate Software. “The anti-drinking and driving sentiment wasn’t as strong as I remembered it being when I was growing up.”
So Geronemus decided to get involved with MADD to raise awareness — and money.
What’s remarkable is that Ultimate CEO Scott Scherr decided to get involved as well.
“I went to my CEO and I said, ‘Here’s what happened to my family,’ ” she says. “I said, ‘I want to make sure that that doesn’t happen to anyone at Ultimate or anyone that I know.’ He said, ‘How can I help? What do you need?’ I said, “I need some sort of event. There was no event.’ “
So in 2010, she started an annual walk — with Ultimate’s support and participation by hundreds of Ultimate workers — that has raised more than $1.2 million. In 2016, for the sixth year, Ultimate was the top fundraising team in the nation.
Helping Geronemus out is just another way Ultimate shows how much it values its employees, says Scherr.
“We have a tradition of giving to charities our people identify as important to them,” Scherr, who is also the company’s founder, tells PEOPLE, “and Heather’s passion to honor her father’s memory and make a difference in the world by increasing awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving was very convincing. We encourage our people to always do the right thing, and in this case, it was the right thing to do.”
That unique way Ultimate cares for its employees was one of the many reasons Ultimate was number two on PEOPLE’s first annual list of the Top 50 Companies That Care. PEOPLE partnered with Great Place to Work to compile the rankings, which are based on surveys of 368,298 employees at nearly 1,000 companies across the country.
The company also gives employees two paid days off per year to volunteer for their favorite cause, matches up to 40 percent on their 401Ks and pays 100 percent of its employees and their family’s health insurance.
“We created Ultimate with the philosophy that giving was so much more important that receiving,” Chief People Officer Vivian Maza tells PEOPLE.
So when a nine-month employee died after being struck by lightning, the company gave nearly $187,000 to his widow, matching what employees donated (not including the company paid-for life insurance). They did the same for the family of a 10-year employee who died in a car crash last year, giving his widow $334,000.
“When they come to work for us, they’re not coming to a job or they’re not coming to a company, they’re joining a family,” she says. “If one of my family members passed I’d do the same thing. We’ve got to do that. That’s one of our own.”
What Scherr did for her still means the world to Geronemus.
“It’s really hard to put into words,” she says. “My life was so ripped into pieces and to have Scott believe in me was so empowering. This walk and run has been the biggest component in helping me heal from the loss of my father. I am eternally grateful.”