North

Yellowknife students for sober driving celebrate 25 years of service

For nearly 25 years, teachers, parents, and a slew of volunteers with St. Patrick High School have been helping curb drunk driving in Yellowknife by giving party goers a ride home.

'We’re trying to keep our community safe,' said teacher advisor

Michele Thoms helped start the SADD driving program at St. Patrick High School in the mid-90s. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

For nearly 25 years, teachers, parents, and a slew of volunteers with St. Patrick High School have been helping curb drunk driving in Yellowknife by giving party goers a ride home.

The program was started by the Yellowknife chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) – then called Students Against Drunk Driving – in the mid-1990s.

People holding events in Yellowknife can hire the program. Volunteers will park outside the venue and drive people home, like a taxi. 

"We're trying to keep our community safe," said Michele Thoms, who helped start the year-round program. She said Christmas is their busiest time of year.

The school asks for a minimum $150 donation for the service, though Thoms added they will go to an event even if they're not paid. That money is split between volunteers, who must put it toward things like Christmas hampers or back into the SADD program.

People throwing events pay a minimum donation of $150 for volunteers to park outside the venue and drive people home. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

'End of the rope'

"It was kind of the end of the rope," said Thoms about the decision to start a Yellowknife chapter of SADD at the school in 1994. The driving program was introduced shortly after the organisation's inception.

In her first three years of teaching at St. Patrick High School, Thoms said nine students or former students died in alcohol-related incidents. 

Twenty-five years later, she said the difference in her school is "night and day."

This is Grade 9 students' Anna Lalonde, left, and Jennifer Mager's second year with SADD. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

"I can't think of any deaths," said Thoms, referring to St. Patrick students and former students. In fact, she said her students will come to her if they know a classmate has driven under the influence. 

"It's so important [to tell someone] because their safety is at major risk," said 14-year-old Anna Lalonde. She and classmate, 14-year-old Jennifer Mager, have been a part of SADD for two years.

While students don't volunteer to drive for the SADD driving program, Thoms said students do run coat checks at events to raise extra money. As part of SADD, they also stand outside the fire station and along busy roads to remind people about the dangers of driving while impaired or distracted.

In 2018, CBC reporters Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi and Steve Silva were stopped by SADD volunteers, handing out candy canes to remind people to drive safely.

The organisation aims to educate students, and the public, about "destructive decisions" such as driving while under the influence, or getting distracted by your phone while driving.

"It feels really awesome to know that you're making a difference," Mager said. 

The girls' message to Yellowknifers this Christmas: "Don't drink and drive!" 

N.W.T. has highest impaired driving rates

It's a message echoed by Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland. Cleveland, a former St. Patrick student, stood up in the legislative assembly to thank the organisation for its years of service in Yellowknife.

Cleveland's brother-in-law was hit by a drunk driver when he was five, an accident he survived but that left him with severe physical injuries and serious brain damage.

"Impaired driving ruins lives and tears families apart," Cleveland said. "We have just passed the one year mark since the legalisation of cannabis, and I want to ask every northerner to make a choice not to drive when impaired."

The Northwest Territories had the highest rate of impaired driving in Canada in 2015 — according to Statistics Canada, five times the national average.

For Thoms, it's important to keep educating people about the dangers of driving under the influence.

"The message is getting through to the kids. It's the adults that we still need to crack," she said.

A magnetic sign on the front of a volunteer's car. St. Patrick High School's chapter of SADD has been running the driving program for nearly 25 years. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

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