As residents of the Land of Enchantment, there are many things that we can be very proud of. We live in a state with beautiful landscapes, incomparable sunsets and rich history and culture. However, there are also those things that are so horrible that should make us all shudder and want to take action. Like the fact that, by mere virtue of living here, we are all in danger of becoming fatal victims of a drunk driver. You see, New Mexico constantly leads the nation in per capita alcohol related car crashes that result in death.
“Shattered Lives of Doña Ana County - Every 15 Minutes” is a program that is working to combat the number of alcohol related crashed involving underage drinkers by raising awareness of the serious consequences among high school age kids. The program provides education to area high schools that empowers teens to make wiser choices where drinking and driving are concerned. By staging a dramatic visual lesson for all the students to experience, the Shattered Lives program aims to decrease underage drinking and driving, especially around prom when it is known that teens are more likely to drink alcohol. “We hope that this staging will be something that will impact the kids enough for it to stick in their mind long-term,” says Toni Hernandez, Director of Shattered Lives of Doña Ana County.
Every year, the Shattered Lives program is staged at alternating area high schools; this past April, it was Gadsden High School’s turn to experience the lifelike presentation. Teachers at Gadsden were asked to nominate influential students to partake in the program in hopes that they will inspire their peers by what they learn during the two-day event. Not only are students a major part of the production, but their parents are also encouraged to participate by writing obituaries for their children as if they had actually died in a car crash. Although it may seem morbid, the emotional letters are an intimate, yet powerful part of the experience because it gives the parents, as well as the kids, a taste of something no one ever thinks will happen to them.
The first day’s activities involved the dramatic removal of selected students in 15-minute intervals from their classrooms led by a Grim Reaper. One by one, the continuous removal of students symbolizes those who are killed in alcohol related crashes on a daily basis. Finally, a police officer reads the impactful obituary of the “deceased” aloud to the remaining students in the classroom.
The main event was a surprisingly graphic crash simulation that was staged in front of the school. Students were able to see firsthand what happens during an actual crash. The scene was littered with empty beer cans; there were two cars that had been seemingly involved in a head on collision caused by a teenager who was driving while he was intoxicated. The bloody, mangled bodies of the victims lay lifeless as paramedics and law enforcement officers attempted to rescue the survivors as they tore the cars apart using the Jaws of Life. The chaotic site was made even more dramatic when a helicopter landed on the street to airlift one of the victims with critical injuries to a nearby hospital. The drunk driver was given a sobriety test, cuffed and taken away in a police car. As the end of the scene drew to a close, the distorted vehicles were carried off on tow trucks and the rest of the wreckage was cleaned up from the street.
That night, the participating students stayed at a local hotel for the night where they attended an educational retreat related to alcohol and drugs. They had the opportunity to listen to the stories of parents who have lost children in alcohol/drug related incidents and the effect it has had on their lives. At the same time, the parents of the students participating in the program attended a separate educational retreat where they learned about the dangers and affects that alcohol has on their children. They were also given the tools necessary to help open the lines of communication with their children and help them make better choices.
On the last day of the program, the entire school was present at the emotional closing assembly where the students read letters they wrote telling their families about their death and other families, teachers, friends, law enforcement officers and real life victims shared their personal views and experiences. The aim was to emphasize the idea that drunken driving crashes do not just affect the drunk driver and those that lost a loved one, but rather there are many victims. The gruesome images are something that will forever be embedded in the mind of those who pull bodies out of vehicles, provide emergency care, as well as those who clear up the wreckage.
“Shattered Lives of Doña Ana County – Every 15 Minutes,” is a tremendous undertaking. Although Doña Ana County Teen Court is responsible for coordinating the program, it would not be possible without the support and cooperation of the community. All the law enforcement agencies, ambulance and EMTs, Getz Funeral Home, Memorial Medical Center, Elks Lodge #1119, Mesilla Valley Regional Dispatch, US Border Patrol, NM Department of Transportation, Doña Ana County Fire Department, LC Fire Department, Anthony Towing Service, Cooperative Extension–4H Doña Ana County, District Attorney’s Office, DAC Health & Human Services Juvenile Drug Court Program, Juvenile Probation Office, La Piñon SARS, Mesilla Valley DWI Resource Center, Native Air Ambulance, NM National Guard, NMSU WAVE Program, Olympian University of Cosmetology, OMI, Region II EMS, United Health Care Community & State, Jose Coronado, PC, Kenneth Egan, Jim’s Supermarket (Hatch), Jurado Farms, Vista College, schools, students and all the individuals that volunteer their time are who make it all possible. Without them we could never accomplish it all,” explained Toni.
Toni is also the Executive Director of Doña Ana County Teen Court which was established in 1994 to provide non-violent juvenile offenders, who have admitted guilt of the offense they are charged with, an alternative sentencing program. They are sentenced by a jury of their peers (teen volunteers) in a constructive manner that is designed to promote growth. This program allows teens to be accountable for their actions while receiving intervention\prevention and education.
Unfortunately, after being separately funded for the past 15 years, funding for the “Shattered Lives of Doña Ana County - Every 15 Minutes” program was entirely cut following the successful presentation at Gadsden High School. “I received a phone call from our funding source saying that all of it was being cut,” regrets Toni, but adds that she will not rest until she finds another source.
“If I have to fundraise by doing car washes and enchilada dinners, that’s what I will do. I’ve had young adults come to me and tell me that they went through the program and have kept their vow all these years not to drink and drive because of it. This program is too valuable and very much needed for me to just let it go,” she exclaimed.
If you would like further information, to give a Doñation or to get involved with “Shattered Lives of Doña Ana County – Every 15 Minutes” or Doña Ana County Teen Court please call or visit:
Doña Ana County Teen Court
2251 Calle de Santiago
PO Drawer W
Mesilla, NM 88046