Before this week, Turlock High School couple Sophie Warda and Danny Velasquez’s plans to attend college and stay together after they graduated seemed just within reach. On Monday, however, those plans came to a screeching halt when Danny was struck by a drunk driver as part of Every 15 Minutes, a two-day program that shows high school students the real-life consequences of drinking and driving.
Velasquez’s plans after graduation — attending Modesto Junior College to play football, majoring in Liberal Studies to become a teacher for students with special needs, and hopefully earning a Division 1 scholarship — were gone in the blink of an eye as he was pronounced dead at the scene. The drunk driver walked away with minor injuries.
“Apparently my parents had known about me being in the program for several weeks, but I had not even the slightest clue. I just hoped I didn’t have to see Sophie be a part of it because I never want to see something like that happen to someone I love,” said Velasquez. “When the cops came into the room and I heard my name, I didn’t really know what to think. I was just silent and listened to what they told me to do. I had no clue of what was about to happen.”
Every aspect of Every 15 Minutes is meant to be realistic for students, from the gory crash scene to the very real possibility that a drunk driver could rob them of someone they love in the blink of an eye. Students are selected based on their influence on campus, according to Associated Student Body Coordinator Jennifer Cullum, who said that the school tries to select a student from every social niche on campus.
“The students are selected in hopes that ripple effect is created and the impact carries much farther than the 23 students in the actual program,” said Cullum.
Warda, who was sitting next to Velasquez when he was taken by the Grim Reaper and officers during first period on Monday, said that just the thought of losing him was enough to make her cry.
“It’s a weird feeling — you know it all isn’t real, but at the same time, it feels way too real,” said Warda. “I think it’s safe to say that anyone’s worst fear is losing someone close in an incident like driving under the influence.”
During his time spent as one the “dead,” Velasquez was unable to communicate with his family, Warda or friends. Later that night, he and other students who were a part of the program attended six hours of meetings, during which they listened to guest speakers, including a trauma nurse, California Highway Patrol, chaplain, and a former THS student who personally shared his experience with drunk driving.
“They have the opportunity to reflect and experience a deeper understanding of choices and how their choices not only impact them, but their friends, family and even the community,” said Cullum.
Students also learned about distractions on the road, got a first-hand look at what driving impaired would be like with drunk goggles, and wrote letters to their parents as if they were truly deceased.
“That hit home,” said Velasquez. “[My family] is my biggest support system in everything that I do, and that’s when I realized how scary drunk driving is. The fact that you could never see your family again...that really scares me.”
With Velasquez gone, Warda said that she spent the evening with her mom and his parents, and found comfort in talking to his mom about him. She coped by looking at pictures of her and Velasquez together.
“It was so weird not knowing what he was up to, or how his day went. I didn’t like it one bit. Of course, I knew that I would see him the following day, but I was affected so much, especially after some of my close friends were killed in accidents too,” said Warda. “All around, it was one of the worst days I’ve had all year.”
After they were reunited on Tuesday, the couple said that they would never allow anyone they know to drive drunk, whether it is taking their keys or supervising friends who had been drinking.
“I think students will carry this program with them forever,” said Cullum. “For some it may be somewhere in the back of their mind and will keep them from making a bad choice. For others, they may champion this program and share it freely as an ambassador because the experience may have hit so close to home.”
With Every 15 Minutes behind them, Warda and Velasquez can now continue to look forward to the future. While Velasquez is going to attend MJC, Warda has plans to attend a University of California campus to study psychological brain sciences and minor in kinesiology in hopes of becoming a sports psychologist.
“Our plans are to stay together no matter what come in our way,” said Warda. “We pray that our futures work out together, but ultimately we need to get our degrees for ourselves and then go from there as a couple.”