Miss America's message: Driving drunk kills
By TERRY RINDFLEISCH / La Crosse Tribune
Jennifer Berry lost a close friend in an alcohol-related motor vehicle crash.
It was July 4, 1999, and a bunch of her high school classmates had driven to a local lake house to party on the holiday.
Her 16-year-old friend, Kristen, who had sipped alcohol for the first time at the party, was one of six students in the car when the driver lost control and crashed.
Kristen’s body was thrown halfway out the back window and pinned in the vehicle. She was the only one to die in the crash. Her funeral was the first Berry ever attended.
“It was two weeks before my 16th birthday, and I was excited about getting my driver’s license,” Berry recalled.
“We couldn’t believe it had happened. It shook us up,” she said.
“I kept thinking it didn’t have to happen.”
Berry said her friend’s death changed her life forever.
When Berry competed in the Miss Oklahoma Pageant for the first time at the age of 17, she knew her community service platform would focus on drunken driving and underage drinking. She carried the platform through in winning the Miss America crown in 2006.
Berry, now 24 and married, will bring her message about building intolerance to drunken driving and underage drinking to La Crosse next week.
She will talk to high school and college students as well as present a free community program as part of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership’s lecture series at Viterbo University.
Berry began her own public-speaking business after serving as Miss America, and she continues to talk about her platform.
Cece Mullenbach of Holmen, Wis., whose 17-year-old daughter, Sarah, was killed by a drunken driver, is responsible for bringing Berry to the area through a foundation set up to honor Sarah.
“The death of my good friend had a big impact,” Berry said. “Before then, I knew drinking occurred, but I was ignorant of the problem.
“Fortunately it was a wake-up call before I needed a wake-up call,” she said. “The choices made by these students took away someone’s life, and they have to live with the emotional pain forever. But the fact is a young healthy woman who had everything going for her never got to be an adult.”
Alcohol parties among her classmates stopped for a couple months after Kristen’s death, but then the parties started again, Berry said.
“Unfortunately people slipped back into their routines, and like everything else, the shock wears off,” she said. “But I couldn’t forget. I didn’t want to forget.”
Berry said pageant officials told her she should select something she was passionate about as her platform.
“Honestly, I have no memory of thinking of anything else,” she said.
“It had to be drunk driving prevention because of the number of young people being killed every year.”
She said her platform was controversial, drawing some criticism because she was under age when she competed for Miss Oklahoma the first time.
“They wanted to know how someone so young could know anything about drinking,” Berry said. “Well, I knew the absolute worst part of it.”
Berry said she was the only Miss America winner to have drunken driving as a platform. After she was named Miss America, Berry said she traveled 20,000 miles a month, speaking up to four times a day about her platform. She became the national spokesperson for MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
She talked to students about the consequences of drinking and developed educational programs for elementary, middle and high schools.
“It is an incredibly wonderful program based on decision-making — learning how to make quality decisions on your own, and the positive and negative consequences of your choices,” Berry said. “I think it has made a difference for some kids.”
She said children need to be offered the independence to make responsible decisions.
“It’s about empowering kids to make good decisions, and it’s so hard for high school kids to be brave enough to make the decision not to drink alcohol,” Berry said. “I tell kids about how their decisions affect their lives.”
Berry said she usually shows up wearing jeans in schools, so students can better relate to her. “I tell them to forget about the crown,” she said. “I’ve experienced some of the same things they have, and then I tell my story.”
She said parents and communities can be in denial about alcohol problems.
“Parents say they drank as kids and they turned out all right, and kids see their friends drink on weekends, and no one gets killed,” Berry said. “But there are plenty of times when things go wrong and someone is killed.
“Underage drinking should not be a rite of passage, and we need to be intolerant of underage drinking and drunk driving,” she said.
People were once tolerant of smoking hazards, but no more, Berry said. “Our society is building an intolerance to drinking and driving and underage drinking, and we need push for more intolerance,” she said.
Berry said MADD is made up of soccer moms, teachers, legislators and young people, who have brought a refreshing new image to the organization.
“We were never for prohibition, but we’re for responsible drinking among adults and eliminating underage drinking,” Berry said. “We’ve made great strides in drunk driving prevention and saved thousands of lives.”
Berry said she never drank alcohol in high school, and only has drunk alcohol rarely since age 21. “And I never drive after even one sip of alcohol,” she said. “We don’t know how our bodies will react to alcohol. You always want to take that extra step to be safe.”
She wants to get a master’s degree in education and teach elementary school some day — and she wants to incorporate alcohol education into schools’ main curriculum.
Berry said deaths related to alcohol use are 100 percent preventable, and people need to continue to work on saving lives.
“It’s something we cannot give up on,” Berry said. “It’s going to take more than one group. I hope we can change the mindset of the peer group, and as a society we shouldn’t let drunk drivers kill people anymore.”
Terry Rindfleisch can be reached at email@example.com, or (608) 791-8227
Story originally printed in the La Crosse Tribune or online at http://www.lacrossetribune.com
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