CRANSTON—Every spring, teenagers across the United States are exposed to a barrage of anti-drunk driving messages and campaigns.
With prom season and graduation fast approaching, high school juniors and seniors can expect to spend as much time watching public service announcements about the dangers of drunk driving or hearing from their parents, grandparents and teachers about how they have to make smart choices as they do finding that perfect tux or gown or planning a big post-high school party.
But the education went a step further for students at Exeter-West Greenwich High School last Wednesday morning.
Sitting inside a small cafeteria-like room used primarily for visits, a group of 43 juniors and seniors from EWG got a first-hand look at the dangers and devastation caused by impaired or distracted driving. As a group of inmates from the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute, and two parents of kids injured or killed by drunk driving, told their stories in a real and honest way during a three-hour presentation for the Zero Fatalities Project.
It was a message those in attendance are unlikely to forget.
“I thought it was good,” Exeter’s Kayla Diffley said. “It made me cry because it was really sad to think about the consequences of things and how long people are in here for.”
“I didn’t think they were going to feel as bad as they did about it,” added student Victoria Quigley. “I think it was more powerful knowing that they felt bad about it. It was, like, so intense. I didn’t think it was going to be like that at all.”
The Zero Fatalities program, launched in May 2008, is described as a “public safety initiative aimed at raising awareness of the devastating consequences of underage drinking and other forms of reckless driving.”
The ongoing presentation, which features a revolving group of prison inmates in various stages of incarceration, however, puts a personal spin on the well-publicized problem. Unlike any pamphlet or televised message against reckless driving, the program aims not to alienate or depersonalize the perpetrators of reckless driving, it aims to make them human, to flesh them out in order to, as several inmates put it, prove that this can happen to anyone.
Putting a personal face to the problem made the dangers that much more real and, for the students in attendance, it was a sobering look at real life, where one bad decision can crush all of your dreams in an instant.
“We’ve lost 50 teens in RI in the last two years,” Asst. Attorney Gen. Jay Sullivan said Wednesday. “That’s two teens every month. Every inmate and every victim will tell you that ‘this doesn’t happen’, that ‘this can’t happen to me’. They were wrong.”
“I never thought it would happen to me,” an inmate named Anderson said.
Anderson recounted his tale, recalling the details surrounding the night he and his best friend Chris were running late on their way to a party in Smithfield. Saying he was a “little tipsy”, Anderson was driving so fast that even a police car trying to pull him over couldn’t catch up. He lost control of his car and, in an instant, went from a 19-year old boy who wanted to grow up and become a real estate agent to a convicted killer serving eight years.
“The choices you make can make you end up like us or be successful,” he said.
Anderson was one of five inmates to share their stories of the mistakes that ruined their lives.
There was also Jake, an out-of-state student, who came to Rhode Island for college. Trying to “scare a group of kids” he felt were driving too slow, Jake passed them on the highway, cut them off and slammed on his brakes. When he looked back, the car had rolled over, its occupants killed. He was sentenced to 15 years, with eight to serve.
Then there was Patrick, 25, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison, with 15 to serve, for killing three of his friends while driving intoxicated. Patrick recalled how he felt knowing he killed two brothers, one of whom was named Travis and had a child with Patrick’s sister.
“How will I tell Travis’ child that I killed his father?” he asked.
Patrick also wondered how he’ll explain the situation to own young son one day. As it is, he says, it’s hard enough trying to explain why “he always has to come here to see me and why I can’t come come to see him and mommy.”
What the inmates wanted to hammer home to the students Wednesday was how perilous life really is, how one bad choice can wash away a lifetime of good ones.
At least, that was the biggest message 24-year old Brandy could convey. Clad in an all-green prison suit, the sole female inmate speaker cried when remembering her decision to drive down to Scarborough Beach with some friends on the first “real beach day” of 2005.
Though she said she’d be able to “cut herself off” if she got too drunk to drive, Brandy made the choice to get behind the wheel anyway and ended up killing two people.
“I had no recollection of what I did for three hours,” she said, tears welling up. “I killed innocent people. I killed two people and got 10 years in jail, which is nothing. You can’t fathom what it feels like to take someone’s life.”
After the final inmate, Anthony, told his story of getting drunk and driving 80-100 miles per hour on Routes 44, 102 and 146 prior to killing a 70-year old grandmother in 2009, a pair of parents presented tales of how drunk driving affects victims’ families.
Cathy Andreozzi moved many of the students to tears when recounting how her daughter Tori Lynn was severely injured by a drunk driver after getting off a school bus and walking home on what was, otherwise, a normal day.
Tori was hit by a 48-year old woman and, in an instant, went from a straight-A student who was a world-class martial artist to someone who, to this day, can’t walk, talk or eat on her own
“It’s been eight years,” Andreozzi said. “I still hear it. I still see it. I’m in that moment.”
Rounding out the presentations was Dan Converse, a parent whose son Jon was killed because “he didn’t have the courage to say ‘no’.”
Converse told the group how, in no uncertain terms, his son Jon was just a regular kid, living a regular life, the night he decided to go out with his friends and drink.
After securing alcohol and drinking all night, Jon and his friends got a ride from their designated driver to their car and, rather than walk home, they chose to take one more lap around and hang out just a little longer, a decision that resulted in an accident that broke Jon’s neck and ended his life.
Converse explained how, even though it’s been three years since that day, the pain is still real every day. He and his wife have yet to clear out Jon’s room because they just “don’t have the courage”.
Holding a prayer card with Jon’s image on it from his son’s funeral, Converse asked the students to close their eyes and picture the person they love the most in the whole world. He told them to think about that person standing at the ACI giving a speech about their death while carrying a prayer card with their image on it the way he does his son’s.
Converse ended his speech with a picture of Jon taken a short while before his death. In the photo, he stands smiling in a Notre Dame sweatshirt next to a poster that says “In life, there are NO make-up exams. Choose carefully”.
It was the perfect way to wrap up a presentation on making better choices. Presenters said if even one student from the school takes that message to heart, it would all be worth it.
For more information on the Zero Fatalities Project, contact Tracey E. Zeckhausen, Chief of Information and Public Relations at the Rhode Island Department Of Corrections at (401) 462-2609 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .