BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Every two years, since 2007, Gov. Livingston High School's TREND club coordinates the "Days of Realization" program to challenge students to think about the consequences of driving while impaired or distracted and its devastating effects so they will make responsible mature decisions when lives are involved.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among those ages 16-19. While the percentage of teens who drink and drive has decreased significantly since 1991, 54 percent, according to the CDC, it is still a major issue. CDC statistics reveal that teenagers are 17 times more likely to be killed in a car crash, when their blood alcohol level reaches at least .08, in comparison to when they are not under the influence.
"Days of Realization" is a student led program under the direction of Student Assistance Counselor Bob Segear, along with the support of the Berkeley Heights Police Department, Mountainside Police Department, Berkeley Heights Volunteer Rescue Squad, and the Municipal Alliance.
On day one, 18 students and two teachers were removed from their classroom by stretcher, accompanied by the Grim Reaper, while a police officer read a statement detailing the action that caused their death. The students were made up as walking dead and were not permitted to talk to other students, use their cell phones or e-mail. The idea was for the students and their friends to experience, for 24 hours, what it would be like if they were no longer here in this world.
Students who were chosen to be actors in the program prepared written letters to their parents as if they really died. This emotional exercise expressed their message of regret and how they wish they could turn back time and take back their bad decision. They shared their sadness to their parents who won't be able to see them pursue their dreams, watch them grow up, and were stripped of the opportunity to walk them down the aisle. They shared their regret for creating a permanent void of emptiness in their families due to their bad decision.
The next afternoon, the students were invited to an assembly. The scene was set as if the students were attending a funeral. A coffin was center stage with varsity jackets and photos of the 18 students and two teachers displayed to memorialize the sadness of the event.
TREND executive committee leader Gavin Jakositz addressed the students and said the emotions that took place behind the scenes were to drive home the message that every 15 minutes a student dies due to the effect of drinking, drugs, vaping, distracted driving (including texting), and speeding.
The students shared their good bye letters.
"We tend to believe we are forever -- it's daunting to know and understand that we aren't. -- My life has ended by one stupid move. -- If one person can learn from this, this was all worth it. -- I am sorry -- no matter how much I write, it wouldn't be enough."
"As a normal human being, you are prone to make mistakes -- that is what life is all about -- learning from the mistakes you make and improving upon them. The worst part is that you may not be able to fix those mistakes. You can't simply press a rewind button and fix what you did. The decisions you make on a daily basis -- each has their own set of consequences. I have lost my chance to live, to thrive and to be successful."
The students listened to the real life story of Maria Estevez, who shared her nightmare of losing her daughter to a drunk driving accident. She provided explicit details of what she went through -- seeing her 8 year old daughter lying on the ground after being struck by a vehicle, her trip to the hospital, the heart wrenching decision to take her daughter off life support and planning her funeral.
She said the driver of the car had a blood alcohol level of .10, which is over the legal limit [the current legal limit is .08]. She said the driver was a nice family man that didn't mean to kill her daughter. He was sentenced to seven years and served four years 8 months. She explained that death by auto today carries a longer sentence.
"Time helps you live with your loss but it doesn't heal," said Estevez.
There was silence as the students listened to Estevez's message. "You make the choices, we can tell you everything, but the choice is still yours. So make the right choices for yourself. Don't ever get in a vehicle impaired, you are too young, you need to be 21, but we all know that sometimes we do drink before age of 21. As passengers, you get in a car, make sure your friend is not impaired with drugs or alcohol. You yourselves don't drive under the influence, wear your seatbelts, don't use the cell phone because it causes distractions and people do die. We do not want you to ever lose your life or be the one that will be arrested and go to prison for something you did not mean to do," said Estevez. "You have the power to make those choices."
Estevez told the students to live a good life by making right decisions. "I wish you the best in your lives. Don't forget to say 'I love you,' even as busy as you are. Sometimes you don't come back and they have no idea. Make the right choices and tell the people that matter to you how much you care -- and live a good life."
TREND executive committee president Nick Zambrotta in closing had the following message for his fellow students: "The loss of life is devastating. While this is a simulation, tragedies affect more people than fathomable. We walk past students and staff in the hallway unaware that all of them have lost someone dear to them. Today, we woke up knowing we would see our friends and family later in the day. Unfortunately, this is a reality for some people. Remember these past few days and carry them with you. Many of you are starting a new journey after high school while others are filling the shoes of the seniors that stand here today. You are leaders of the school. Before you pick up your phone or participate in any of the activities that we have witnessed over the past 48 hours -- we all have the potential to impact somebody's life positively, however, we also have the potential to impact somebody's life negatively. Just as it is easy to give, it is equally easy to take. That is what makes life so fragile. Now it is your turn to make a difference." The students listened in silence.
The program was made possible through the effort of the TREND executive committee, Watts Foundation, Berkeley Heights Municipal Alliance, Ippolito Berkeley Heights Memorial, Berkeley Heights Police Department, Berkeley Heights Volunteer Rescue Squad and many other contributors.