"I've always had to learn the hard way," says Dave Rowe to his audience. "I want you to learn the easy way. That's why I'm here."
"Here, in a wheel chair," he might have added. But he doesn't need to say it. The wheels are shining under the auditorium lights, and every student at Hillside Junior High can see what happened to Dave Rowe when he drank and drove.He became a quadriplegic.
"When I was your age I wanted to be a vet," he tells the students. Dreams fade. Now his goal is just not to hurt his family any more.
That (sparing his family) is why he decided against suicide, he says, in response to a student's question.
Students ask plenty of direct questions, and not just about suicide. Rowe answers them all. That's his job, his semi-volunteer position with "Fine Line" - telling kids the painful truth, so maybe they won't have to learn it for themselves.
When the "Fine Line" team comes before a school or community group the format is simple: First there's a film, on which six local young people tell their own stories. All have spinal cord injuries; all but one from accidents related to alcohol.
Next two or three of the young people who were on the film appear in person. They wheel themselves to center stage and start fielding questions. Something else that never varies about the format is that no matter how long the assembly lasts, students come forward afterwards to talk some more.
"Fine Line," is a program of the Stewart Rehabilitation Center at McKay Dee Hospital in Ogden. Dorothy Vernieu, now the community affairs coordinator for the center, started the program because she was saddened by the number of young patients she was seeing who had spinal chord injuries.
"They were almost all young men who had been in accidents," she says. "Or young women who had been passengers in a car driven by a young man.
"And it seemed to me that at least 80 percent of those accidents were caused by alcohol or drugs."
Vernieu asked several patients and former patients if they'd be willing to tell their stories to other young people. They say it in words, but they say it even more profoundly by just sitting in those chairs with their young faces and limp legs."My body was once just like yours - young and perfect and healthy. I took chances because I thought I was invincible. I'd never hurt myself before in a way that couldn't heal. Like you, I thought I never would."
The bottom-line message of "Fine Line" is: Don't mix drinking or drugs with driving, and wear your seat belts.
Six people accepted Vernieu's request. The first film was called, "A Sorry Note," and was a rather amateurish production made by the hospital staff. Teens responded to the film, though, and to the young speakers. After two years the group began covering it's expenses. (Hillside's PTA paid $250 to bring "Fine Line.") They hired professionals to make a new film, called "A Fine Line."
The group has been touring the state for six years now and have begun to get invitations from schools in other states as well.
At Hillside last week, Rich Archuleta and Dave Rowe spoke. Archuleta was riding his motorcycle when a drunken driver ran him off the road. He flew 150 feet and landed on a curb, breaking his back. His voice is quiet when he tells his story, but his words hit hard on the young audience.
"Did you know you how bad it was?" "Yes, as soon as the accident happened, when people came to help me I kept screaming at them over and over, `I can't move my legs, I can't move my legs."'
"Does your back ever hurt?" "I've been in pain since the second my back was broken. My spine exploded. Little bits of bone went everywhere. There's nothing they can do for me. The pain never goes away."
"Do you drink now?" "No. I drank before the accident, though I hadn't been drinking that night. But now I just don't want to be around liquor."
Rowe broke his neck when he flipped the Blazer he was driving. He and a friend were out hunting. They had been drinking all day. The car rolled three times. However, Rowe knew something was wrong after the first roll when his friend jumped out and he couldn't. Because he couldn't move.
Had he been wearing a seatbelt he might not have been paralyzed.
"Why did you start drinking?" asks a student. "For a lot of very stupid reasons," answers Rowe. "Because I thought I'd be more accepted by my friends, because I thought it was cool."
Vernieu says students at every school ask some of the same questions. "They want to know if the spinal chord victims still drink. How old they were when they started drinking. If they can have sex. They ask all sorts of things about the disability.
"They are asking themselves, `Could this really happen to me?'
"Sometime they ask how to help a friend who is doing these reckless things."
After the talk at Hillside, Archeluta explains why he spends so much time speaking. "I was working towards being a paramedic when my accident happened. I was only two weeks past my 18th birthday. And I had wanted to be a paramedic my whole life.
"It took a long time to realize what I wanted to do couldn't be done. A long time. I still want to devote my life to helping others. That's why I do these talks."
Dave Rowe's closing words at Hillside, last week, were these: "It's no fun being in this chair. I hate this chair." He hopes, as Archuleta does, that some teenager remembers, some crucial day, what he said.