The 24 student participants of the 2015 “Every 15 Minutes” program
Statistics show that every 15 minutes, a young adult is injured or killed in an alcohol-related incident. With Prom right around the corner and the potential dangers that alcohol can cause in that situation, the Helix administration created a chilling experience that coordinator and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) Advisor, Cheryl Tyler believes, will have a lasting impression on the students for years after.
Funded by the California Office of Traffic Safety and California Highway Patrol, Helix hosted the two day program featuring junior and senior student volunteers which challenges the upperclassmen to consider the consequences that alcohol can inflict, especially in the case of driving and when other’s lives are involved.
“It shows the dangers of drinking and driving and not only how it affects one person, but also an entire community,” said Tyler of the program’s purpose. “It’s to teach teenagers that making smart decisions and doing the right thing is the way to go.”
The first day of the program was, as reported by many students, “confusing” and “slightly creepy” as 20 student volunteers walked around campus as “living dead.” With their faces painted ghostly white and carrying a tombstone, each student represented an alcohol-related death as they were each pulled from their classes 15 minutes apart by a Grim Reaper. Upon re-entering the classroom, the students were escorted by a police officer who stopped class to read out an obituary.
For the rest of the day, the “dead” participants were not allowed to speak or communicate to anyone via phone or hand signals. Its purpose? To simulate the actual feelings of absence of a close friend or classmate as if a real accident were to ever occur.
“I felt gone. I felt dead. I was essentially disconnected from everyone,” said Jordan Rodrigues, a junior “living dead” participant.
“Not seeing my classmates able to speak at all was really surreal. If it were to really happen, it would be way more emotional but it was still an eye-opener,” said Deborah Hurst, a junior who had several friends participate in the program. “It reminds us that drinking and driving can make this kind of thing a reality.”
Of course, hoping to create a lasting impression, the Every 15 Minutes program took it up a notch.
Gathered on the front lawn of the school during third period, the juniors and seniors received a tragic scene of reality as they witnessed a staged, horrific car crash of totaled cars, glass and blood, and three of their fellow peers severely injured and one even “dead.”
Joseph Toilolo, a senior, played the role of the drunk driver causing the accident, with another driver, senior, Graham Root, and the two deceased victims played by Amaris Munoz and Kori Patton, both seniors as well.
The rest of crash played out as if a real accident would, with police officers, the fire department, and ambulances responding to the scene. The firefighters on duty operated a normal procedure to extract the victims from the cars, while a police officer performed a sobriety test on Toilolo, and placed him under arrest. At the very end, all 20 of the “living dead” participants walked onto the scene as a hearse carried Munoz to the morgue while the entire junior and senior body looked on.
The whole scene, including the aftermath, such as Toilolo being charged at the police station, the other victims being treated at the hospital, and the parents being notified of their child’s death, was all caught on tape for a later video that would be pieced together to recreate a process of a DUI fatality case.
Munoz playing as the “dead” victim of the car crash
Patton was one of the crash victims who was later pronounced “dead” upon arrival at the hospital and she admits that the entire situation was “unexpected” even though she already knew what she signed up for.
“During the making of the video, it didn’t click that I was the person who was dead because obviously, I didn’t actually die. But until I saw everyone’s reactions afterwards once I came back [to school] I realized it was much more serious. That’s when I started seeing and feeling all the emotions, and I’m not going to lie, I cried a couple times,” the senior explained of her experience.
“Seeing how it affected people that I barely even talk to made me extremely sad. If it affects those people, thinking of how much worse it would be for my close friends and family was terrible,” she continued.
Following the crash and the rest of the dramatic events, the 24 program participants finally came together for a night away from home and school, as they simply just had fun, in contrast to the previous tragic events of the day and the future emotions that they were to endure the next morning as well.
When asked about their time at the night retreat, the three seniors, Thao Ngo, Dominic Pletcher, and Graham Root, all broke out in smiles and laughs with a group unison of “Oh my God’s.”
“Best night ever,” said Pletcher to sum up the experience.
Having no phones or electrical devices to text or check social media, Root said, “we actually talked to each other and interacted.”
That interaction consisted of hours of Four Square, ping pong, air hockey, Uno, concrete block breaking, soda can smashing, excessive eating and even a midnight game of Hide and Seek.
“[Our phones] should be taken away more often,” Root said with a laugh.
However, it’s also accurate to say that some emotional moments occurred as well through the duration of the night.
Pletcher recalled, “We had a couple talks as a group about personal experiences, personal problems, people opening up about their own life…we just got to know each other on a deeper level that on any other occasion, wouldn’t have really happened.”
To gather 24 high school students, all from different backgrounds and friend groups and by the end of one day, have them all trust and acknowledge each other as friends, is a feat that this program managed to do.
The next morning, the student participants had to prepare to endure yet another emotional rollercoaster: their own funeral.
At promptly 9:30 a.m. on Fri., Apr. 10, the gymnasium was packed with juniors and seniors as all that was laid before them was a coffin and their 24 peers while the “funeral” ceremony began.
The assembly consisted of several guest speakers, such as doctors, police officers, and even a man who lost his own son in a DUI accident. Each speaker told of their experiences involving drinking and driving and essentially, warned of the dangerous choice that could end a life.
The video tape of the DUI process made the night before was shown to the student body as well.
The entire program seemed to have done its job, as you can hear sniffles throughout the audience during the assembly and afterward, many hugs and reunions occurred.
Considering it took a year of planning and over 50 volunteers with the police department, hospitals, and other facilities, the impact on the students, the participants, and their parents was huge.
“Our expectations wind up being what we receive. It’s a shock. It’s a shock for students to see what could actually happen and that it can happen to anybody,” said Tyler of the students’ reactions. “It’s an awareness of the impact that [drinking and driving] can have on everybody, not just themselves.”
However, for the 24 students who were a part of the program, their impression of the program is a whole different story.
Tyler agrees saying, “It is so much more powerful for the participants because they are in it, they are living it, and it becomes very real for anybody who is involved. Even though we know it’s not real, it starts to feel like it.”
Rodrigues explained that the program “immersed [the students] into the experience” thus making it have a lot larger impact.
Root, who was one of the drivers in the reenacted car crash, received the opportunity to ride in an ambulance with responding paramedics. He said how the incident “really got to [him]” and that “[he] got to see how everyone involved is affected by one decision.”
“Unless it happens to you, you don’t realize how great it is to look up and see people working so hard to help you,” said Root of the paramedics and firefighters. “It was so impactful and eye-opening, and I’m so glad I got the experience to see those things happen. I was lucky to be a part of it.”
Along with Root, Pletcher believes that being a spectator of the program is only part of the lesson.
He said, “Everyone saw the impact and what we went through and that’s how they learned, but we one-on-one were part of the impact, so I think we took away a little bit more from it than everyone else.”
This program was aimed to do a lot more than reprimand students to never drink or make bad decisions. Truthfully, as young people, the whole point of growing up is to make mistakes and learn from them. The Every 15 Minutes program’s purpose is to prevent the mistake that could leave one individual unable to learn from it due to one decision that proved deadly.
With Prom within a week away, the program was here to show Helix students: The decision is theirs to make and one second can change everything.