Henrico students take home awards and leadership skills from YOVASO retreat 

Annual event educates students about dangerous driving

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Henrico High School students won the “best group” award at the annual Youth of Virginia Speak Out About Traffic Safety retreat, which took place on the James Madison University campus from July 15 to 18.

The prize, however, paled in comparison to the other things students took home: a newfound understanding of leadership, great memories and many real examples of the impacts dangerous driving can have.

In April, the Citizen reported that crash fatalities on Virginia’s roads hit a 14-year high in 2021. From 2019 to December 2021, distracted driving was responsible for more than 2,200 crashes in Henrico.

The students, who serve as officers for two student organizations – Blaize’n Awareness Against Drugs and Alcohol and Leading and Inspiring Future Trailblazers – are excited to bring what they learned back to their peers in the Fall, their mentor coordinator Deborah Hayden said.

This year’s retreat was the first that students from Henrico High School attended, and several rising seniors would love to return as youth leaders next summer, they said. The students were split across three different teams with students from other schools, meaning they each had a slightly different retreat experience and will learn from each other’s unique insights, Hayden said.

Rising senior Malakai Lee won the spirit award at the retreat for his enthusiasm and positivity. He was particularly touched by the second day of the retreat, called impact day.

The day began intensely as students witnessed a live simulated crash. Then they saw the cleanup process, a mock trauma bay and heard from people whose lives were forever changed by dangerous driving.

“The project impact day was a lot of seeing, a lot of hearing, and a lot of accepting. Once you accept that these things happen you realize they’re not trying to scare me, but they’re trying to tell me how much impact something I think is so small can have,” Lee said.

Ayanna Shelton, a fellow rising senior, also was moved by project impact.

“The mock crash and the discussions really stood out to me because we were seeing the damage that could be done,” she said. “The thing I took away from the speakers was that lives can change in the snap of a finger.”

* * *

Retreat attendees heard from parents who, in October 2019, lost their 16-year-old son, Connor, who died in a drunk driving crash. To spread awareness, they founded the Connor Gweedo Memorial Foundation which, according to their mission statement, seeks to educate new drivers and parents about safe driving.

“Connor’s mom’s story was really intense because her son was gone, and I could never imagine my mom losing me from something as sudden as that,” Lee said.

Attendees also heard from a police officer who, while responding to a 17-car pileup on Midlothian Turnpike, lost his legs after an 18-wheeler crashed into one of the two cars he was standing between.

“His experience really got to me because he’s a dad, and you know, stories about families just get me in the heart because he had a kid out there and she had to see him like that, when he was almost on his deathbed,” Lee said, adding that the vulnerability and honesty of the speakers was incredibly moving.

Hayden was especially touched by the speakers because she herself faced a tragedy after losing several family members to a drunk driving crash.

“Hearing other stories brings that pain back,” Hayden said. “Even though it happened 30 years ago, it still impacts us as a family. It’s not something that ever goes away.

“By sharing personal stories, we not only show people that you can continue to live life, but also bring the message of, ‘Hey I’ve been here, I don’t want to see you have to go here or have to go through this,’” Hayden said. “That’s what we try to do with our group at the high school and tell our community.”

The following day was filled with activities that provided interactive overviews of the mechanisms behind traffic safety, Hayden said. Students got a chance to sit inside real police cars, motorcycles, ride a crash simulator, and speak to the driver of and sit inside a truck.

One of Shelton’s favorite parts of the retreat was when students went through a trooper go-cart obstacle course designed to show the risks of distracted driving. Loud music and rowdy passengers distracted the drivers as they tried to dodge cones and follow traffic rules, like stopping at stop signs.

“That activity was great because the students were so enthusiastic and willing to participate,” Hayden said, emphasizing that students’ participation levels made this years’ retreat such a success.

Though several parts of the retreat were fun – like the dance contest, which Lee won – the often heavy subject matter of the retreat left students with many questions. To help, each group was assigned a state trooper who answered questions and led by example. Except for at the end-of-retreat banquet, officers wore plain clothes in an effort to eliminate the power dynamic associated with the uniform.

The gesture promoted engagement and open dialogue between the students and officers – interactions from which both Lee and Shelton learned.

“My group’s trooper was amazing because she answered any question that we could have had at any moment that we had it,” Lee said.

“A lot of people that are a part of my community have struggles with law enforcement and with being close with law enforcement,” Lee said. “They weren’t in uniform except for at the banquet, so any time I interacted with them, I interacted with them just as a human, and that was so important for us because a lot of the time we’re interacting with your job and your title and what that entails.”

The officers did a fantastic job of bridging the communication gap between the students and themselves by being authentic and not dodging hard questions, Hayden said.

“That’s what I’m looking forward to carrying into this school year is being authentic and being impactful,” she said. “We may not stop everything that we want to, but if we can make a dent in it, then our work is not in vain. We want to give the kids an outlet and a safe place to be themselves and give them examples of good leaders.”

* * *

Lee plans to take on new leadership strategies that emphasize the importance of being approachable and communicative, he said, adding that to be a good leader, you have to be a good listener.

“I’ve definitely become a better listener not only to the things I want to hear but to the things I have to hear and should hear,” Lee said. “I also learned how important it is to take what other people are going through into account. I want to be an effective leader but also a loving and caring leader that makes you feel comfortable and makes you feel like I’m approachable.”

Shelton learned the importance of being a leader inside and out, she said, emphasizing the importance of leading by example and showing good character.

Since she earned her driver’s license in May, she came to the retreat with an important perspective as a new driver. She thinks driver’s education programs could benefit from adding more about the dangers of distracted driving, taking on a proactive rather than reactive approach to the problem, she said.

Hayden and her students are excited to bring YOVASO resources and what they learned back to the high school this fall. Lee would like to bring some of the organization’s seasonal campaigns to his fellow students, especially around Halloween when homecoming brings attention to distracted driving.

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To learn more about YOVASO, click here.

To learn about how distracted driving has affected Henrico, click here.

 

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