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Program highlights teen driving deaths

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By Brenda Sexton

The Courier-Herald

Early one morning Michelle Martinez entered a Collins High School classroom to tell students classmate Hannah Thompson had died in an alcohol-related car accident.

Later that morning, Hannah, along with 10 other Collins High students sat quietly among the crowd of 60 gathered in the high school's library for a memorial service to mourn the lives of those tragically lost. A hearse outside the library doors was a rude reminder of their death. A memorial wall displayed mementos of their once vivacious lives.

The 11 students, who were pulled from classes by the grim reaper at 15-minute intervals between 8:35 and 10:30 a.m. Dec. 6, represented someone who dies in a drug- or alcohol-related traffic accident every 15 minutes.

After each student's obituary was read to those remaining in the classroom, the student would return looking like a ghost and sporting an “every 15 minutes” T-shirt. They would remain among their classmates, not speaking or reacting, as a silent reminder.

The event, which was presented for both morning and afternoon sessions at Collins High, was hosted by the White River School District's Prevention Team.

At the mock memorial service, friends, family and staff shared letters, poems and personal experiences.

Hannah, holding her 1-year-old daughter Zoe, read a letter to friends and family, “Today, I died,” it started. “And I never had the chance to say good-bye.” As she read, she told her mother and daughter she loved them and her time, although short, was well spent.

It was hard for Hannah's mother, Sandy Thompson, to hear. Sandy, who also addressed the group, told the story of how six years ago she lost Hannah's 21-year-old brother in a similar accident.

“The hardest thing will be for Zoe not having her mother as she grows up,” Sandy cried.

Her son's daughter was 6 months old when he died and now as a first-grader sometimes finds it difficult to navigate without a father.

The service continued as school counselor Keren Smith read the poem “Death of an Innocent,” and Morgan Chavez spoke of her sister, a former Collins High student, who died in an car accident when she was hit by a drunk driver.

“It's been 10 years and you never get over it.” Morgan told the group. “When you drink and drive, not only you can get hurt. It's a horrible decision to make.”

She pointed out that those in the room were not old enough to drink legally, but reminded them if they believed they were adult enough to make the decision to drink, they should take the responsibility that goes with it.

“I want you to know if you drink and drive this is something you can cause someone.”

Grief counselor Catherine Johnson from Weeks' Funeral Home also spoke. She told the story of a high school brother and sister. The brother decided to go to a party while the sister opted to stay home. The brother, after drinking, drowned. The sister struggled with a tumult of emotions. Johnson wanted students to know there are people, like herself, available to help others through their losses.

The afternoon session took a different direction as an Enumclaw teen who was driving drunk with three friends in the car talked about her decisions and the consequences that have left her struggling with injuries.

It was a day of mixed emotions.

“It kind of made me mad. Some didn't take it as seriously as they should have,” Hannah said.

Kyli Rice, who was among the pretend deceased said she also heard the snickers and was among those who might have thought it an odd way to prove a point at the beginning.

“It didn't really hit me until they read my name,” said Kyli, who said joking is her defense mechanism, but the harder she thought about it the more it hit home.

“It's not a funny situation,” she said. “The impact of those who are not here. It just hit me. It totally tears you up. Death is not cool or funny at all.”

A couple students thought it was a horrible way to get the message across. Some did not see the students' whose deaths were announced during class earlier in the day and were taken by surprise.

“I felt you were making a mockery of death,” said one student.

Collins High counselor Kim Gunn said that was not the group's intent. The school was chosen for this project because it has gone through a number of tragedies recently.

“I want to thank all who participated,” she said. “We know this was a difficult thing to do. The whole point of the day was to make students aware of choices. We want you to make good decisions.”

Brenda Sexton can be reached at bsexton@courierherald.com.

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