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I always looked forward to June 17, the birthday of my only living grandparent. Every year I spent the day composing corny jokes that made her to snort with laughter and murmur loving approval. But in 2002, in a matter of seconds, my associations with June 17 changed forever. My friend died that day, an event that will influence my actions for the rest of my life.
That summer, my friend Sarah and I were eager to enter high school. I had been accepted in the International Baccalaureate program at South Fork; Sarah had gotten word that she made the cheerleading squad. We celebrated our accomplishments and good fortune with glasses of sparkling apple juice and trips to the mall. Our excitement made us oblivious to the idea of suffering or loss – until the hot night when a drunk teenager sped from a local party, ran a stop sign at seventy miles over the speed limit, and slammed into a car filled with girls and their uncle as they returned home from the movies.
As my mother told me what happened, I couldn’t comprehend her words. Sarah was doing everything right; hanging out with the right people, getting straight A’s, and even sitting in the backseat of a responsible adult’s car wearing her seatbelt. If she wasn’t safe, in that situation, then none of us were. The pain and sadness were overwhelming and numbing. The loss of someone so young, bright, vivacious, and full of promise seemed agonizingly unjust. It was a daunting task to simply get through each day.
A few weeks after the funeral, my sadness turned into anger and frustration. Attorneys for the teenager driving began blaming the victims of the crash in the local media and most members of our close-knit community quickly chose sides. It seemed the entire county was angry. People protested the prosecution of such a young defendant. The papers were filled with angry letters to the editor. I was disgusted by the parties suing liquor stores, parents, and car companies in an attempt to “right the wrongs.” The public bickering and accusations only served to deepen my sorrow. Sarah would have never responded in that manner. I feared that I would never recover if I continued on this negative path of blame and anger. I had to find a positive outlet for my feelings of helplessness.
It was then that Sarah’s mother and I began working with a newly formed chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. We began promoting a new youth division of MADD called Youth in Action, YIA, which targets underage drinking as well as drunk driving. Meeting adults and teens with similar experiences and goals has been healing, entertaining, and exciting. The group has met with local law enforcement agencies and provided refreshment for officers at DUI checkpoints. I watched in amazement while impaired drivers attempted simple sobriety exercises. More teens need to be made aware of the affects of alcohol on drivers especially since we have such little experience behind the wheel.
I continue to work with MADD and the YIA today. Recently I met with state troopers and legislators in our state capital to encourage stiffer penalties for impaired drivers, especially repeat offenders. We run a one-week summer camp to recruit middle and high school age students, which continues to be a rewarding and motivating experience for me as a counselor. I am encouraged by the increasing number of teens receiving and responding to the positive messages from MADD. Also, I am a paid investigative aid for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office. I work with detectives and deputies to arrest convenience store clerks who illegally sell alcohol to underage patrons. Punishing those who break the law will make access to alcohol harder for teens in my community and therefore reduce underage drinking,
While I am optimistic, there are still many obstacles to overcome. For example, a wonderful new multimedia show, The Spot, uses a teenage perspective to deliver a compelling message about the true effects of drinking and driving. Our local school board rejected MADD’s request to air the message in middle and high schools. Their lack of cooperation was disappointing, but not debilitating. MADD and YIA are collaborating with religious groups and community business leaders to sponsor The Spot for over a thousand youth in our area in the spring of 2006.
Now, June 17 stirs many emotions for me: happiness for my grandmother, of course, accompanied by profound sorrow and anger. But since I became engaged in efforts to curb underage drinking and drunk driving, June 17 also symbolizes for me the positive action and change that tragedy can catalyze. What fuels my passion for YIA and life in general is my dedication to Sarah’s memory, and the understanding that no one, not even the brightest and most promising of children, is safe from harm. The perseverance I have developed since the loss of my friend will undoubtedly serve me well in college and all future endeavors.
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