Flying into Traverse City, Michigan we seemed to float on one layer of fluffy clouds and were gently protected with a layer above. The setting sun was a cranberry red, sending its rays across the cottony sky, gleaming off Lake Michigan and making it sparkle like rose-colored diamonds. I wondered if this where the angels dance?
Any potential trepidation of driving two hours to Mackinaw City where I was to board a ferry to magical Mackinac Island flew out the window with the cool Michigan country air.
Mackinac Island is a journey back in time. Victorian homes wave to ferry travelers from the hillsides and the unmistakable smell of horses greets visitors at the dock, for no automobiles are on the island. Instead the taxi that greeted me was a horse-drawn carriage. The Grand Hotel crowns the island in graceful splendor since 1887, still pampering its guests in romantic elegant fashion.
The true joy of the trip were the wonderful people of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. Ken Stecker and Marcia Beatty were most gracious hosts, making sure every need (even when I had no needs - I was in heaven) were cared for.
Culminating the visit was a celebration of honorees at the PAAM Conference Banquet. I felt extremely humbled to partner with Mike Prince, Director of Michigan Highway Safety Planning, in presenting the David M. Schieber MADD Michigan Lifesaver Award to Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Athina Siringas. She successfully prosecuted a driver who was impaired with a 0.26 BAC while driving over 100 mph. He hit and killed a 24-year-old young woman traveling home from babysitting.
APA Siringas shared that the victim's mother asked her to not let her daughter die in vain. She asked her to simply seek justice. That is what APA Siringas did. She obtained a conviction of second degree murder as well as OWI causing death. For that I applaud Ms. Siringas.
On behalf of drunk driving victims, I offer our gratitude for treating the offense as a serious crime. It is still distressing that today our society too often treats killing someone while driving drunk as an accident instead of the violent and offensive crime it is.
I see the future with advanced technology putting an end to it. If that doesn't work, I like the idea of going back to the horse-drawn carriage days. What a peaceful thought.
MADD National President
I called Melissa Montgomery to thank her for the uplifting evening I was privileged to share with the dedicated and inspiring folks in the South Texas Affiliate of MADD. It was obvious that they are close. I told her I could feel their mutual trust and personally felt invited into their family with open arms.
Melissa replied, "Everyone should be. There is not one person who doesn't want to be doing what we are doing. It is not a job to us. It is a passion for each one of us and we work as a team in whatever we do." What a team they are. They are everyday people doing extraordinary things!
Starting from the left, in the photo you see Angela and R.J. Dittmeier. Angela serves as a victim advocate. She exudes kindness and professionalism. Next to her is Melissa Montgomery with her husband, Thomas, standing behind her. (He says that is his role all of the time.) Melissa is the Victim Services Manager.
Next to Thomas in the back row is Rudy Rodriguez. What a delightful dedicated individual. After retiring from law enforcement, Rudy now continues his care of protecting us through the Take the Wheel Program. I am standing between Melissa and Dorene Ocamb, National MADD's brilliant and delightful marketing and communications specialist. Melissa said of Dorene, "I really like her. She is honest and dedicated and real." I agree!
Nicholas Cheatam is devoting his college semester as an intern with MADD. How lucky they are to have him. On the right is Carlos, who teaches humanities at Northwest Vista College. He was there with Nicholas and immediately expressed his desire to connect MADD with his students to help them learn the benefits of community service.
The picture is missing two very important persons in this MADD family. Carly Johnson is their gracious and very competant volunteer coordinator, and my friend, Executive Director Jennifer Northway, their illustrious leader. Jennifer made sure that in her absence I was able to spend time with her Southwest Texas MADD family.
Thank you, Jennifer. I send my thanks to each of you for devoting yourselves to helping others through MADD - be it supporting those victimized by drunk driving, or working to save lives and prevent underage drinking.
Warmly, Jan Withers
MADD National President
I am always uplifted when spending time with victim advocates. This week I was privileged to attend the NOVA, National Organization for Victims Assistance, Conference in Philadelphia. The presentations were energizing as well as educational. The true benefit was being able to share precious moments with MADD victim advocates from around the country who were able to attend the conference. There were about 10 of us, including Debbie Weir, MADD's Vice President of Victim Services and COO. Every one of these individuals exudes kindness as well as expertise. They radiate joy as well as peace. Each of them has a quiet "knowing" about them. Some have lived the experiences of victimization themselves and others are simply those wonderful souls that care and "get it" and stand by others who are victimized. The photos are of our MADD victim advocates.
The last morning I attended a class that filled my spirit. The guest speaker was Melissa Lucchesi, who shared her story of being a survivor of not one, but two rapes, six and a half years apart. She was testament to the power of the personal story. In addition to hearing her story, though, she was amazing to watch, as she wove her experiences, how she felt, how she reacted, and how she overcame. Her vulnerability was palpable and yet her strength filled the room. She was so real and she was so inspiring. One could hear her agony in her voice and her words, yet in those very same breaths, one could hear her determination and feel her power. She was able to invite her listeners into her world and allow us to be part of her experiences.
Melissa began with a quote that continues to help her on her journey. "Don't let the tragedy be the end of your story."
Melissa's story of survival can be applied to all types of victimization and that is why I share it with you. She relayed that counseling has been very helpful and continues in it today. That was not enough, though, and so she sought other methods as she moved forward in her healing. She relayed that reading memoirs of others who had similar experiences were very helpful to her - she no longer felt alone,that she was the only person with the reactions she was having. She enjoyed healing retreats and began running for physical release. She trained for a half marathon, sharing that she has a love-hate relationship with running. She appreciates it because she has to focus on it, which helps push out all the negative emotions related to her victimization.
Melissa says that "being a survivor means struggling every single day to live life fully, but not forgetting the trauma." As she shared these thoughts, the weight of what it took for her to again live life fully was actually visible. Melissa began an organization to help others who share similar experiences. It is called Voices, Incorporated. I encourage you to visit her website. She takes her peaceful power, reaches out, and invites others to join her.
Melissa quoted Maya Angelou as she closed, "The greatest agony is holding an untold story inside." Melissa shares her story to not only empower herself but to empower others. She indeed empowered me to continue to share my story in the hope of saving lives.
Thank you, Melissa.
Warmly, Jan Withers
National MADD President
Hope. I love that word. I cherish the concept. I treasure the feeling. There were so many days after my daughter was killed by a drunk driver that I felt buried in the dark hole of despair, when I could see no possibility of light. It was a difficult climb to the surface, one I could never have made on my own. One person who held the light on for me until I could see it myself was my MADD victim advocate, always there to care, listen, and support.
Anger also accompanied my despair. I was furious with our society. How could we allow this violent crime to exist? It is so preventable. It is so unnecessary. I became vocal, actively participating with MADD to get "tougher" laws, believing that would become a deterrent so more folks would decide to drive sober or have a sober designated driver. Sadly, after a few years I became disheartened. The number of America's family members killed by drunk driving stayed relatively the same. My hope was waning. In fact, I was downright discouraged.
Some people continue to drive drunk because they can. Interestingly, because all the education and deterrents and punishments do not seem to stop the drunks from driving, we now have the development of advanced technology that will turn the cars into the cure.
Today my hope is renewed. We are living in the time when the vaccine to this horrible disease of drunk driving and the destruction it leaves in its path is being created and tested. Right now....as you read this....it is happening!
JT Griffin, MADD's Senior Vice-President of Public Policy, and I recently were privileged to visit the laboratory where it is being researched in Boston. Bud Zaouk (the gentleman with the dark hair you see in the photos) graciously educated and escorted us through the facility. It was inspiring.
The technology is called Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, or DADSS. It is a technology that will integrate a passive sensor into the vehicle, being able to detect the precise amount of alcohol in the driver's system. If that driver is at or above the legal limit of 0.08 BAC, the car simply will not start, or be driveable. The performance specifications are set at an extremely high level. It must perform absolutely accurately, precisely, reliably and work in a very short time (millisecond). This is now being tested for vehicle integration and consumers will have the option of purchasing a car with it already part of the package - much the way we had the option of having air bags in our vehicles years ago when they became available. It will not be mandated.
The DADSS is not to be confused with today's alcohol ignition interlock systems that convicted drunk drivers are sometimes required to place in their vehicles. They certainly are an effective tool in reducing drunk driving. In states requiring those for all convicted drunk drivers, fatalities caused by drunk driving have been reduced by over 30%. However, they are calibrated at a lower level of 0.02 BAC, because a person convicted of drunk driving is not allowed to have any alcohol while driving.
DADSS program is studying two prototypes. One is distant spectrometry, which uses infrared sensors that are triangulated on the person in the driver's seat. The other uses tissue spectrometry, which uses near infrared light that will perhaps be imbedded in the start button or the gear shift.
It was astonishing to have the mechanisms explained and demonstrated, indicating how very close we are to having this become part of our everyday reality...which means to me, to have the cars be the cure...which means that there will be a day when the car will simply not allow a person to drive it when impaired by alcohol at or above the legal limit.
The DADSS project is funded by our National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. MADD is now urging Congress to support the ROADS SAFE Act, which will lengthen the time of funding this important research.
THIS WILL SAVE SO MANY LIVES. This is my hope. I hope it becomes your hope. Do call or email your Congressperson and tell them you want them to support this life-saving legislation. It very well could save the life of someone you love.
National MADD President
The White House is profiling Americans from across the country whose work is helping our country rise to the challenges of this century. Each week they feature stories of Americans doing extraordinary things in our communities to help innovate, educate, and build the rest of the world. They are celebrating the success of these Champions of Change, learning their stories and sharing them with the world.
Friday, I was honored to represent all the incredible people in MADD who are doing these extraordinary things to help make our communities safer and support those who have been victimized by the effects of drunk driving or drivers impaired by using other drugs with the alcohol. We also know that alcohol is the number one drug of choice among our youth and every year it kills more teens than all the other drugs combined. MADD is truly a leader not only in the country, but the world, in our approach to solutions.
Nine community leaders were honored by the White House for our work to reduce drug use and its consequences and for empowering and inspiring members of our communitites. During our visit to the White House, representatives from the Office of National Drug Control Policy hosted a discussion on how several innovative local programs are successfully working in our communities to reduce the burden drugs pose on local communities. MADD's work is recognized to be innovative and effective in this area.
It was an incredible day. We first were given a private tour of the East Wing. We then walked out the portico facing Pennsylvania Avenue and walked into the West Wing, where we were escorted to the Roosevelt Room, adjacent to the Oval Office.
I had been there once before to witness President Clinton sign the bill lowering the legal limit of alcohol in a driver's blood for determining drunk driving from 0.10 BAC to 0.08 BAC. I was flooded with memories of our MADD President at the time, Millie Webb and her daughters, Brenda Frazier (whose precious 10-year-old Ashley was killed by a driver impaired at 0.08 BAC), and others with whom I waited in that very room before meeting the President. I noted my emotions were similar. I am not in the least bit complacent about the privilege of being there. BUT, the reason we were there is why my emotions filled my spirit. It was because there are so many good people working so very hard to help make our communities safer, to help individuals have more productive and positive lives, and to save lives. Both times, every single person in that room was there for those reasons.
We sat down at the conference table, at the very table and in the very chairs many world leaders have sat, and began a wonderful roundtable discussion of what our organizations are doing. Director Kerlikowski, of ONDCP, led the discussion. Those present shared amazing things they have done to transform their communities and strengthen individuals lives. The stories were diverse - from Lt. Dan Gannon who implements drug market interventions in communities and helps local citizens reclaim their environment - to LaKisha Bryant, Director of Girls Inc. in Albany, GA, who provides programs and services to help girls, ages 6 -18, to be self-sufficient, responsible and contributing members of society. I have to share with you that not only were they appreciative of our support for people who have been victimized by alcohol and drug impairment, but they were very impressed with the details of our Power of Parents iniative as well as the details of our Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving.
We needed to conclude at a precise time, because the room was scheduled for another use right after we finished. As the director quipped, "It is coming from someone with a much higher pay grade than mine." We learned that the President was having a luncheon in there following us. I cannot deny that I was disappointed he didn't just pop his head in to say a quick hello....grin.
The day didn't end there. We walked past the "Situation Room" to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The floors were black and white diamond-shaped marble. The door frames are trimmed with ornate Greek key design and the door knobs all have the insignia of each of the military branches. We waited in that not-too-boring environment for each person to be individually interviewed for videos to be posted on the White House website. The interviews took place in the Secretary of War Room located directly across the hall from the Vice-President's office. That room was indeed not-too-shabby itself. The walls were actually gold lame framed in dark ornate wood trim. We sat on antique chairs atop a huge oriental carpet for the interview. It was as if history whispered anecdotes from every corner.
It was an inspiring day with inspiring people doing inspiring work. I quote the White House blog on Champions of Change: "The best ideas come from American people. Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has a part to play. Our country's success is built on the fact that working together we do big things... Together we will win the future."