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Commentary: Empowering Youth to Prevent Underage Drinking

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Unfortunately, many of us know about the immediate dangers associated with underage drinking — including alcohol poisoning, drowning, falling, assault and car crashes. But what we may not know is that kids who drink alcohol before age 21 are more likely to abuse alcohol later in life and become the next generation of drunk drivers. With more than 6,000 people killed each year in the U.S. as a result of underage drinking, this issue impacts all of us — young and old, parents and non-parents.

My daughter, Alisa, was killed by an underage drunk driver when she was just 15 years old. I think about my sweet baby girl each and every day. I think about her life, so full of promise. And I think about her getting in the car with that 17-year-old drunk driver. Alisa was a bright girl, kind and loving, intuitive and wise. Yet, she got in that car. I can’t turn back time and change what happened to my Alisa. But we can make a difference in the lives of countless other teens.

It takes an entire community working together to help solve this public health issue. The latest program in Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)’s community-based approach to underage drinking prevention is called Power of You(th)™, which aims to help teens use their power and take a stand to not drink before age 21.

While it’s true that one in five teens binge drinks, it’s important to note that this means four out of five teens DON’T binge drink. Now, that is power. Teens need to feel empowered to make the right decisions about alcohol today, so they can look forward to a healthy, happy future. This includes making choices like saying no to alcohol and never getting in a car with someone who’s been drinking.

This summer, MADD brought together 10 exceptional teens from across the country for its first-ever National Teen Influencer Summit. The teens helped shape the Power of You(th) program, which will launch in schools around the country during Red Ribbon Week next month (October 22-26), with a booklet for teens on the 411 about teen drinking.

One of these remarkable teens is Melissa Stegner, a 17-year-old high school senior from Clifton, VA. Melissa is an incredible example of activism born out of personal tragedy. Just after Christmas 2007, her father and 13-year-old brother were killed by a drunk driver. Since that horrific day, Melissa has been working tirelessly to make sure her peers know the dangers of underage drinking, and its correlation to drunk driving. She is making a difference in her local community, and is a true testament to the Power of You(th).

As we begin this new school year, let’s use Red Ribbon Week as an opportunity to empower our youth to take a stand against underage drinking. Download a flier encouraging teens to enter a nationwide video contest to showcase their power to prevent alcohol use before age 21. Together, we can help today’s youth become leaders in their communities, showing their peers that saying no to alcohol today means a brighter future tomorrow.

Jan Withers
MADD National President

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