Venturing Crew Turns Grief Into Safety Campaign

Venturer Ali Gibson looked into the television camera at the Dutch Fork Middle School and thought about the death four months earlier of a 14-year-old member of her crew.

Jenny Kukucka and her older brother had not been wearing seat belts when they were killed in a car accident.

The wave of grief that engulfed the 22 members of Venturing Crew 312—which is chartered to the Episcopal Church of St. Simon and St. Jude in Irmo, S.C.—had now been replaced by a dedicated plan to spend three weeks in area schools delivering a driving safety campaign to more than 5,000 students.

Tragically, Jenny’s death was not the first such event to touch the lives of the members of Crew 312 and other area families. Four years earlier, a series of accidents killed several local high school students, including a football player who had been planning to join Crew 312.

Like Jenny Kukucka and her brother, the football player had not been wearing a seat belt. Tragically, neither situation was unusual. In 2004, 114 South Carolina teens were killed in automobile accidents (up from 103 in 2003). Only 19 of the 114 were wearing seat belts.

Nationwide, 16- to 19-year-old drivers are four times more likely than adults to get in a car wreck and three times as likely to die from one, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

These statistics, combined with experiencing the loss of close friends, convinced Crew 312 that a safety campaign was needed.

A MESSAGE FOR STUDENTS

As a result, Ali Gibson and three other Venturers went to the Dutch Fork Middle School to talk about causes of automobile accidents and fatalities: speeding, careless driving, drugs and alcohol, and not wearing seat belts.

As 1,100 middle school students watched via closed-circuit TV in their classrooms, Ali—who at the time was an 18-year-old high school senior and former crew president and is now a student at the University of South Carolina—tackled the subject of peer pressure involved in the use of drugs and alcohol.

“Just being in the car gives you the right to stand up to the driver,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask them to slow down a little. Don’t be afraid to call mom or dad for a ride home from a party because you [are] drunk or everyone else is drunk. They would much rather drive at 3 in the morning than bury you two days later.”

Venturer Lauren Radford told how Jenny Kukucka had been her best friend and had recruited her to join the crew. “Jenny might be sitting here today if she had been wearing a seat belt,” she told the students.

Their presentation finished, the four Venturers filed into a nearby room where they quietly hugged and shed tears.

DECIDING TO DO SOMETHING

The middle school was the first stop of visits to three schools that marked the end of an emotional roller-coaster ride for Crew 312.

The crew members, evenly split between girls and boys from three schools, normally spend their time camping and engaging in high adventure activities like whitewater rafting and rock climbing. But following Jenny’s funeral, tears and heartache had left every crew member eager to do something.

The decision to bring a safety message to students was quickly and unanimously approved by the group’s nine officers.

Targeting two high schools and a middle school, they began months of planning, focusing on everything from the design of posters and games to how to pay for the campaign.

Tok Kim, a freshman at the University of South Carolina and crew administrative vice president, coordinated the effort. Tok, who had befriended Jenny when she first joined, helped the crew decide which issues they wanted to emphasize and how.

They researched the Internet for accounts of other student safety campaigns, then discussed what would work in their own schools.

Some activities were shaped by discussions with principals. For example, a “ghost-out” to symbolize the number of youth killed in accidents each year was modified, with crew members selecting students each day to wear special ribbons rather than including a costumed grim reaper and painting the faces of students.

In the school cafeterias, crew members handed out traffic safety quizzes and rewarded students with candy if they answered questions correctly. The tests became wildly popular, even among students who had not yet learned to drive. One featured scrambled letters of common traffic signs; another quizzed students in one of the four safety topics.

BUCKLE UP

On Mondays and Fridays, crew members stationed themselves in school parking lots, offering candy (donated by local merchants) to drivers and passengers who had their seat belts buckled.

By Friday, crew members reported a significant improvement in the number of seat belt users.

The crew also invited special speakers. Jenny’s mom appeared at the middle school, fighting tears while she pleaded with students to buckle up and pay attention to safety.

At Dutch Fork High School, Lance Cpl. Josef Robinson of the state highway patrol presented a new, computer-based video program designed by state safety officials to reach teens and lower their accident rate.

He also talked with them about their driving habits. During these discussions some students revealed that they not only did not wear seat belts but they had also been in cars going more than 100 miles per hour.

A PERMANENT REMINDER

The Venturers decided to make a video presentation about Jenny’s death and driving safety. For the project, Tok partnered with Venturer Nikki Catoe, who was a member of her high school’s TV staff. The resulting 15-minute video included interviews with Jenny’s parents, friends, and crew members, plus a slideshow featuring photos of Jenny throughout her life.

The crew gave a DVD version of the video to each school to air on its closed-circuit TV system. Plans called for another version, with questions for leaders to use with Scouts, to be donated to the Indian Waters Council, Columbia, S.C.

School officials and students praised the campaign. One parent even confessed to not being a regular seat belt wearer until the campaign changed her mind.

“I think Venturers are great advocates for programs like this,” said Larry Brown, Scout Executive for the Indian Waters Council. “I’m the father of a 15-year-old daughter, so I know how important it is to do all we can to educate teens on the dangers of not wearing a seat belt and of drinking and driving.”

The crew’s officers also decided to toughen the group’s policies on driving. The new rules included dozens of guidelines, such as a ban on cell phone use by drivers and requiring the crew’s president, when doing passenger headcounts, to also check for buckled seat belts.

As a permanent reminder of the need for safety awareness, the crew created the Jenny Kukucka Memorial Public Service Award, to be granted each year to a crew member whose participation and leadership in public service is judged to be outstanding. Tok Kim was honored with the 2005 award.

Newspaper reporter Tim Smith also serves as Advisor for Crew 312.

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