On Friday, motivational speaker Chris Sandy whose program is called Choices Matter traveled from Georgia to share a message with Greenwich High School students about drunk driving.
Minutes before he started a girl was overheard to say, ‘We can’t even drive yet, why do we have to listen to this?’ But by the end of Mr. Sandy’s stark story, the answer was clear.
Mr. Sandy’s promotional materials say, ‘Don’t let happy hour turn into a 30 year sentence.’ That about sums up what happened to Mr. Sandy.
At 22 was Mr. Sandy was of legal age to drink. He attended a party, drinking beer and hard liquor out of familiar red Solo cups.
From there, a call came in from a friend about another party, maybe a better party. As he described it, the drive down a two-lane country road was one he knew by heart. In a split second he crashed into a 1984 LTD driven by Mrs. Nellie King and her husband Mr. William King, both in their early 70s.
“She died on impact and he died after his first surgery,” Mr. Sandy said of the Kings, who had been about to turn into the driveway of a family member who had offered them assistance with their taxes. “They were very nice people,” Mr. Sandy recalled learning after the fact.
Outreach Club leaders Charlotte Hacker and Rosanna Neri pointed out that the timing of his visit coincided with the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) decision to decline funds for Safe Rides, which offers free, confidential rides home to teens who might otherwise accept a ride from someone intoxicated, or drive home drunk themselves.
Rosanna Neri told students about a a Change.org petition organized by students urging members of the BET to reconsider their decision.
While Mr. Sandy shared his story in the performing arts center, his “Choices Matter” program allowed students to simulate driving under the influence in the student center.
One at a time, students put on the “beer goggles” as their friends witnessed them lose their coordination with the gas pedal and struggle to navigate turns.
Mr. Sandy has spoken to over a million students in 35 states. His presentation at GHS was funded by the Connecticut Dept of Transportation.
“I did something really messed up,”Mr. Sandy said, adding all young people will make mistakes in their lives. “Hopefully not as big a mistake as me, but you can get caught up in a moment and be filled with regret.”
Quoting his friend, illusionist Jaden Maxwell,’ Mr. Sandy said, “When you’re having the most fun in life, that’s when you’ll make the biggest mistakes.”
Chris Sandy spent 8-1/2 years in prison out of a 30 year sentence. His release in 2009 was followed by seven years of probation.
He described prison in stark terms, but said being released was almost worse. “I have to live with this choice every day of my life.”
Mr. Sandy recalled the moments after the April 11, 2000 crash. He had driven up behind a white mini van and decided to blow past it. After seeing an oncoming car, he withdrew to behind the mini van. In a moment there was a gold flash and all went black. He woke up lying on top of the yellow line on the road and tried to crawl. Because of the pain he went in and out of consciousness.
“I heard somebody yell something. ‘There’s a fatality on the scene!’ I realized then that I had killed someone.” Mr. Sandy had plowed into the rear passenger door of Mr. and Mrs. King’s car.
“Living with the choice I made was worse than the 8-1/2 years I spent in the penitentiary,” he said. But while he was imprisoned, Mr. Sandy participated in a documentary for television which was viewed all over the country. Through that experience he gained a mentor who encouraged his motivational speaking.
Still he foundered personally, and decided to seek counseling.
“Don’t worry what other people think when it’s time to get help,” he said. “Now I feel stronger and better.”
Mr. Sandy described the painful ripple effects of the choice he made back on April 11, 2000. He said his parents’ 30 year marriage fell apart and they divorced. His close relationship with his sister diminished. She visited him just five times in eight years in prison.
Recalling his childhood and how his father used to try to embarrass him, Mr. Sandy said, “My dad was always trying to show me he loved me.” Mr. Sandy said his father visited him regularly in prison, keeping his spirits up with talk about fishing trips they would take.
Unfortunately, two years shy of his release from prison Mr. Sandy’s said his father died of a massive heart attack in the car. He had just left from one of his prison visits.
Mr. Sandy said that during his years in prison, he had a visit from Eric Krug, a victim of a drunk driver who happened to be a friend. Mr. Krug’s crash happened the exact same day as Mr. Sandy’s: April 11, 2000.
Mr. Sandy and Eric Krug became best friends over the course of several years of regular prison visits, beginning in 2006.
Mr. Krug, who played baseball in high school, had been living his dream of playing baseball in college, and had been voted MVP by his junior year. On his 21st birthday he had been celebrating with his teammates when he was severely injured in a DUI crash.
Krug’s sister had put him in a taxi, but after she walked away, he and his friends got out of the taxi and let Eric’s friend’s 19-year-old girlfriend drive. Sandy said Missy, athlete of the year and head of her sorority, had been drinking but said she was good to drive.
Mr. Sandy said during his probation, he knew that if he made a mistake he could easily be sent back to prison.
Every year on April 11 he said he would place a flower memorial by the crash site. “I’ve never missed a year, and I will continue to do it for the rest of my life,” he said.
Eric was in a coma for over a year, and has a traumatic brain injury.
Mr. Sandy said Eric and his mother ended up visiting him in prison every weekend for almost four years. “They never judged me,” he said, adding that he and Eric wrote a book together.
“There’s a lot of story to this,” Sandy continued, adding that since writing the book he married Eric’s sister. “I would have never imagined life working out like this.”
Mr. Sandy said he is trying to be a good parent and has coached soccer. “I coached for 3 seasons for my daughter and when we moved I couldn’t pass a backgorund check I can’t be a coach any more. It’s part of my consequence for what I did when I was 22 years old. ”
At the end of his presentation, Mr. Sandy asked all the students to stand up and make a fist and connect with those around them. His point was that people will help you in life. “You just never know who is willing to help you when you’re going through life.”