40 years ago, a tragic drunk driving accident took the lives of two Wayland High School hockey players, leaving the town in mourning. After losing two of his athletes, the WHS hockey coach at the time, Robert Anastas, realized a change needed to be made and began a club about drunk driving awareness. Through the years, the club has gained a larger following within the town and has also evolved into a worldwide organization with around 8,000 chapters around the world.
In the 1980s, one of the leading causes of teenage death was drunk driving accidents. Anastas brought the community together and started the organization, traveling to different states to help the organization grow. Since then, SADD helped implement the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which raised the minimum drinking age to 21. The organization also helped lower the legal blood alcohol content level around the country. In 1997, the club renamed itself from Students Against Drunk Driving to Students Against Destructive Decisions to signal their shift in focus after the organization was able to make a difference in lowering the number of drunk driving accidents each year.
“You know that you have people not only in your local community, but across the globe that have your back believing the same things you are, making the same choices as you,” the current president and CEO of SADD, Rick Birt, said.
Birt has been president and CEO of the organization for four years now. Birt grew up in Ohio and was part of the club for the entirety of his high school career. However, after he lost a friend to a drunk driving accident during his sophomore year, he wanted to be a bigger part of the club and decided to make a career out of it.
“In SADD there is so much to do, and even while we are sitting here talking, I think every day about the fact that there are teenagers who probably lost their lives today because they made poor choices,” Birt said. “There are families that are forever impacted, so there is a real urgency to the work that we do. It is easy to beat yourself up by thinking we’re not doing enough to accomplish our goals, but it’s all about taking that next step and keeping on climbing.”
In Wayland — the town where it originated — SADD has kept a strong group of students involved who run the local chapter each year. Seven years ago, wellness teacher John Berry took over as club advisor and has watched the club grow for the past few years. The club is not only important to Berry because it is protecting his students, but also because Wayland is also the town that he and his father grew up in.
“I care very deeply about this community, so I do not want to see any unintentional harm being done because one person made a bad decision,” Berry said. “We have raised awareness about certain topics, and I think students are actually really receptive to those things, especially when it comes to drunk driving. I think that every year there are issues we can do better on, but overall, I think that just the fact that our membership has grown, we have been able to reach a wider audience.”
Around the country, each chapter takes on the goals of SADD differently. Currently in Wayland, the club is working to spread awareness about a variety of topics rather than just focusing on drunk driving. The topics include healthy decision making, awareness about driving while impaired and mental health issues. This year, the club will be hosting a mock car crash that the fire department will help simulate in order to educate students. The club is also hosting a “Buckle-up Challenge” event.
“I get to see the great decisions that students are making, and I want those stories to be heard, and I want those examples to be followed,” Berry said. “It is so easy to focus on the bad behavior of teenagers, and the bad things that happen, whereas I know so many kids [who] are making great decisions, and [it’s] those students we should be celebrating.”
To further celebrate students and the organization, SADD has been hosting events and honoring its 40th birthday. The organization is launching new contests that reward SADD students with scholarships. The organization has also taken on social media by creating Tik Tok challenges and other social media contests for students to participate in. They also released a SADD birthday playlist on Spotify.
“Not only is SADD a trusted resource for young people, but it is also just a place where you can have fun, and a place where you can connect with others across the state, across the country, and even across the world,” Birt said.
This summer, SADD’s national conference— its biggest event in the past two years—will be held at Disney World. It will include four days of keynote speakers, workshop presenters, including experts in prevention and SADD students. WHS has been planning fundraisers to allow Wayland’s club to take the trip to Florida and participate in the convention. WHS will be recognized for being the birthplace of the organization.
“It will be four fun jam-packed days of education, empowerment, mobilization and change,” Birt said. “[The point of the event] is to create a space where SADD students can learn about the best practices with prevention to action plan with their chapters, to return home with strategies and programming they can use.”
Birt describes the organization as being “grass-roots” because of the chapter’s fluidity and uniqueness. In Wayland, students gather every other Wednesday after school discussing new topics, making posters, planning events and fundraisers.
This past January, five new junior leaders were chosen.
“SADD is really important to me, and I think the message about making the right choices for you is important,” SADD leader junior Piper Cinti said. “SADD is a club that educates kids about making the right decisions, even when it seems scary, so I feel very lucky and grateful to be part of this club.”
Not only is Berry proud of the students running Wayland’s chapter of the organization, but Birt is also proud of everything students have done around the globe for the organization.
“You do not have to get over an addiction today,” Birt said. “You do not have to make it into an Ivy League school today. You just have to make the next best choice for you and others safely, and by climbing, we keep each other safe and achieve that, one step at a time.”
Over the past 40 years, students and advisors have been working towards an ultimate goal: for the SADD organization to put itself out of business.
“I hope to reach a day where every young person achieves the bright, rich future they deserve,” Birt said. “A day where you have no lives that are lost to destructive behaviors, no lives that are lost to preventable causes of death or injury. And while I know that’s a big goal, that is the goal that we have to keep pressing towards. Because if the goal isn’t zero, then who do we discount? Who do we say it’s okay if it happens to them?”