April 07, 2016 01:50 PM

On January 31, 2013, Judy Kottick’s 23-year-old daughter, Ella, was killed by a bus as she crossed a New York City street. In the months following her daughter s tragic death, the devastated New Jersey mom felt very much alone.

“I felt like I was the only person in the world this had happened to,” she tells PEOPLE. “I was desolate and desperate.”

In the middle of one sleepless night, the grieving mother searched Facebook, hoping to connect with someone who may have suffered the same kind of loss she had experienced.

Judy Kottick and her daughter, Ella, in 2012
Courtesy Judy Kottick

Kottick found HP and Amy Tam Liao, whose 3-year-old daughter Allison had been killed by an SUV in October 2013 while crossing a New York City street with her grandmother.

Through that connection, Kottick, 60, found other grieving parents and family members who united with her and the Liaos in the hope of keeping other families from experiencing similar tragedies.

About a year after Ella’s death, Kottick, and her husband, Ken Bandes, a software engineer, and other families held a vigil at the deadly intersection where Ella was hit. The spot was a pedestrian danger zone with another fatality and 29 crashes leading to serious injuries occurring in the several years before her death.

From left: Ken and Judy with their children, Ella and Ian
Courtesy Judy Kottick

The huge turnout on the cold afternoon stunned Judy and Ken. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Ken of the interested politicians, reporters, and numerous community members.

“Buoyed by the overwhelming support, Judy, a psychotherapist, led an effort to create Families for Safe Streets, a group that is part of another non-profit. Kottick and her cadre are determined to make safety changes in traffic laws and patterns, increase enforcement and create support groups for others whose loved ones were killed in traffic crashes.

Within five months, the group’s meetings with influential politicians in New York City and in the state capitol of Albany resulted in a drop of the speed limit in NYC from 30 to 25 mph. The group has also been instrumental in making significant safety changes at the intersection where Ella was struck, as well as other streets across the city, and in increased enforcement of traffic laws.

“We’re trying to get the word out that unsafe driving is unacceptable,” Kottick says. “They are not just accidents, they are preventable crashes.”

Kottick speaks at a community meeting in Bushwick, Brooklyn
Courtesy Judy Kottick

While pedestrian deaths surged nationwide in 2015, last year marked a historic low for pedestrian deaths in New York City.

According to statistics from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, 2015 was the safest year on New York City streets since record-keeping began in 1910. Pedestrian deaths, while still far too many for Kottick, hit a historic low of 134 in 2015.

Mayor de Blasio has made traffic safety a top priority of his administration through his Vision Zero campaign, and credits the work of Kottick and Families for Safe Streets for helping him accomplish this vast reduction in traffic deaths through the lowered speed limit, installation of speed cameras, and other safety improvements.

“Judith was a particularly important voice in achieving these changes,” he tells PEOPLE, noting Kottick’s efforts are “exemplary.”

“I can only imagine the pain of losing a child,” de Blasio, the father of two children, tells PEOPLE. “But she has turned it into righteous energy.

Kottick speaks with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at the American Walks conference in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy Judy Kottick

“She’s used it in a way that’s led to real changes. The impact that she’s made on the legislative process no doubt is going to help save other lives. I think she took pain and turned it into action and that’s incredibly admirable.”

Debbie Kahn, 62, joined the group after meeting Kottick. Kahn and Kottick formed a special bond as Kahn’s only child, Seth, was also killed by a New York City bus in 2009 while crossing a Manhattan street. The Mamaroneck, New York, artist now advocates for police to enforce traffic laws and for politicians to make stronger laws.

“If it wasn’t for Judy, I wouldn’t have gotten into this group,” says Kahn. “It’s been a lifesaver to me. It’s given me a passion. It’s given me a reason for living again.”

That same passion fuels Kottick.

“When you lose a child, you lose your future, you lose your joy, your life is shattered,” she says. “For me, the only hope is to find meaning in life and I think helping other people and trying to save lives is what is bringing us some meaning.”

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