5600 Cougar Drive, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Two cars smashed together sit at the far end of Barron Collier High School’s south parking lot, glass and pieces of broken headlights litter the concrete.
As firefighters work to remove a boy from the back of a green Honda Accord, police begin talking to the driver, who stumbles out of the front seat with a beer can in his hand.
“Joe! Joe!” the boy with the beer can shouts towards the ambulance his friend is being loaded into, as a group of teenagers stands behind yellow police tape, watching silently.
“We’re not here to celebrate death. We are here to make you think of the lives you have in front of you,” said Craig Greusel, a teacher at Lely Elementary School and the writer/director of Reality Journey, a program designed to make students understand the consequences of drinking and driving. “Someone in Collier County actually died in that car because of a DUI. That’s reality.”
Students were brought out in classes in 20-minute increments to walk through Project Reality, which is a re-enactment of an underage party that leads to a fatal drunk driving crash. The event is held every October during Red Ribbon Week, which is a national drug and alcohol education and prevention initiative. The event will also be held at East Naples Middle School and Palmetto Ridge High School over the next two weeks.
Students begin the journey by listening to two cheerleaders plan a party at the house of one of the cheerleaders, whose parents are out of town. The next stop along the way is a Collier County Sheriff’s Officer interview the girlfriend of Joe Jones, the boy in the back of the crashed vehicle. The girl tells the officer that her boyfriend doesn’t drink but accepted a ride from a friend who had been drinking.
A fire truck blocks the onlookers from seeing the crash until they walk around it and encounter the yellow police tape. As they watch the scene unfold between Mike — the driver — Joe, the police and firefighters, Collier County Sheriff Cpl. Ken Villa tells the students that 11,500 teenagers try alcohol for the first time every day. Of fatalities involving alcohol, 40 percent involve teenagers.
“This is a tragedy because it could have been prevented,” he said, pointing at the smashed cars.
After seeing the crash, the students hear from the medical examiner, who tells them that Mike suffered no life-threatening injuries and was arrested by police. Joe, on the other hand, suffered a subdural hematoma, which caused bleeding in the brain, and a ruptured spleen. He died at the scene.
“Joe’s birthday is coming up on Nov. 1. Instead of celebrating with a balloon and a cake at school, his friends and family will go to the cemetery with balloons,” said Cherie Wilson-Watson, a member of Collier County EMS who was playing the role of the medical examiner.
The crash also killed a pregnant woman and her unborn child.
“We want the students to see what can happen when you make the decision to get behind the wheel when you have been drinking,” she said. “We want them to call their parents, call a teacher, call another friend. Just make the right decision not to be in that car or to let someone who is impaired drive that car.”
The students also see an attorney, who tells them that Mike is facing jail time, a $10,000 fine and the loss of his driver’s license forever as a result of the accident. Joe’s mother is also there.
The final stop is a casket, where Greusel, who developed the program nine years ago, presides over Joe’s funeral.
Sophomore Hannah Jeffries, 15, said the event was “eye-opening.”
“It’s kind of scary,” she said. “We are always told not to drink or do drugs, but it is different when you see (what can happen).”
Each year about 75 people volunteer for Reality Journey, including local students and professionals from the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, the East Naples and North Naples fire departments and Collier County Emergency Medical Services.
“If we save one life with what we did today, it’s worth it,” said Jerry Sanford, public information officer for the North Naples Fire Department.