Clarion, Pa.- As the Autumn Leaf Festival weekend approaches, the need to encourage responsible drinking to students and residents alike has never been greater: especially for Vernon Hilyer. His son Brandon Hilyer was a Clarion University student who died in a drunk driving accident during ALF weekend in 2008.
On Sept. 28, Vernon Hilyer spoke to University students alongside Sergeant Frank Remmick of Public Safety about the affects, consequences and risks of drunk driving and alcoholism.
University Activities Board Financial Coordinator, David Bazile, helped plan the event alongside National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president, Torron Mollett. Bazile and Mollett felt that with the approaching ALF weekend, the presentation would inspire responsible drinking and possibly save lives.
“The main message we want to spread to students is to stay safe,” said Bazile. “We know we can’t stop them from drinking, but we can encourage them to think smarter and drink responsibly.”
Mollett shared Bazile’s aspiration to encourage fellow students to embrace the ALF celebration with integrity and responsibility. Mollett hopes that students realize that “alcohol is nothing to play with, especially with drinking and driving.”
Bazile added, “I think that our presenter’s message is strong and will leave a huge impact because his son, who attended Clarion, died in a drunk driving accident during ALF. Hopefully it will get people to think, ‘maybe I shouldn’t drink this heavily’ while they are with their friends at ALF.”
Students who attended the event were given the chance to participate in activities wearing Drunk Busters, goggles designed to stimulate the vision of an individual with the blood alcohol content of 0.9 to 1.5.
Co-chairman for the recreation committee Armon Coleman was asked to walk on a straight line, count out 43 cents and open a lock with the goggles on. “When I first put them on I couldn’t walk to the platform where the lock is,” he said. He continued to walk around dizzily after taking the goggles off. He added, “They really ruined your depth perception. I would be scared to walk around my house like that, let alone get in a car and drive.”
Hilyer encouraged the students to test out the Drunk Buster goggles before his presentation, to help them understand the importance of his message. “The leading cause of death of individuals age 16 to 24 is a DUI crash,” he said, “and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the driver dies, it can be a passenger, a passerby, someone sitting on their porch when a drunk driver decides to crash his or her car into their house.”
As pictures of his late 21-year-old son began to cover the screen, Hilyer discussed how on Sept. 9 of 2008, he began a life sentence due to drunk driving, “and this life sentence,” he added, “I will never gain freedom from. My life sentence is to live without my passion, without my son, who decided to drink and drive that night, and drive his car alongside of the bank, to be thrown 90-feet away from his car and to his death.”
Hilyer described his son as a talented basketball player, a phenomenal bowler, a friend to many. After graduating Clarion Area High School in 2005, he pursued a degree at Clarion University to become a marine biologist.
“We did many things together,” he said, “We fought to get him back into college during his third year. We went bowling in tournaments, we went to local fairs and concerts. But we never drank together.”
Hilyer described how one drink led to another, and then a case and then to a bottle of vodka or two a night. He explained how his son needed more and more each night that he drank and even began to steal items from the house to sell to pay for his climbing bar tab.
Excuses that his son made to explain his growing drinking habits changed every night, changing from the stressors of school to his struggling relationship with his girlfriend. Alcohol became Brandon’s daily cologne, the smell of beer hanging from his every breath. “Alcohol began his daily motive,” said Hilyer, standing beside his son’s old basketball jersey. “He always had an answer as to why he was drinking or why he needed more, saying that he was always OK and that he never was ‘that drunk.’ But I knew that the day was coming when something truly bad was going to happen.”
That moment arrived on at 2:28 a.m. on Sept. 9, 2008, 10 days before Brandon’s 22nd birthday. With a blood alcohol content of 2.53, almost three times the legal limit, Brandon tumbled alongside an embankment for 109 feet, sideways, at a speed of 65 miles per hour.
“A police offer’s job is to make sure that drivers and civilians stay safe, but there is only so much that they can do, they can’t be at every place at once,” said Hilyer, who walked across the embankment where his son had crashed, finding one of his tattered bowling shoes and blue checkbook, with the last item he purchased being a beer from the local bar.
He continued, “It is my turn now to do the job, to encourage others to drink responsibly and not drive, to not turn a DUI into a DOA.”
“I speak at probation offices, county prisons, jails, universities, anywhere really that I can, to share my story, to explain to others that your actions when you drink, or when you drink and drive, not only affect you,” Hilyer added. “I have had people come up to me after my program and tell me, ‘you described me and my habits’ or your program gave me courage not to drink and drive at my college prom,’ and that is what drives me, that is what motivates me to share my pain, to share the story of the loss of my son.”
Hilyer concluded, “So ask yourself, when you are with friends, and you are drinking, think to yourself, do you need to drink to be with them? Do you need to drink to have fun? And most of all, is it really worth the chance?”
For more information on Drunk Driving or Brandon’s story, feel free to contact Vernon Hilyer on Facebook by liking the page, “Brandons Dad “or visit the website duiawareness.com.