WHEATLAND - Freshman Impact was presented by C.O.R.E. (Community Organized Resources for Educating our youth - a non-profit organization), for the students of Platte and Goshen counties last Tuesday in Wheatland.
The mission of Freshman Impact is to save teen lives through interative, preventive education. The program, with the help of local volunteers, presents real life situations that teens might find themselves in and the consequences of poor decisions.
The program began back in 2006 in South Dakota by Sheriff’s Deputy Rick McPherson. He has been volunteering with the program full-time since his retirement last year after 33 years in law enforcement. It has now spread to North Dakota, Montana, and now, Wyoming.
“I got tired of picking kids up off the road,” McPherson explained. “I thought it was time to do some preventive work for the kids.”
McPherson went on to explain that at a previous program there was a teenage boy who never wore his seatbelt. A week after the program he totaled his Suburban. He lived because he started wearing his seat belt every time after seeing what could happen in an accident.
It is an all day event starting with several different break-out sessions with smaller groups of kids. Project Safe had a session on dating violence and internet safety; Wheatland lawyer, Kelly Owen hosted seatbelt races to demonstrate how little time it takes to buckle up; Suicide Prevention was talked about by Grace for 2 Brothers; and the kids also had to navigate an obstacle course in a four-wheeler while wearing goggles that simulate being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The day concludes with a skit that shows teens making poor decisions that lead to a vehicle accident with firefighters, police officers, an ambulance, a hearse, a helicopter ride for an injured passenger; memorial service with a coffin, and a sentencing in a courtroom. The teens in the skit were volunteers from the Wheatland High School Thespian Troupe.
“It was really important that the theatre kids made it as realistic as possible so the students watching would not take it as a joke,” commented drama coach Kalyn Krotz. “We did some work before hand (with the actors) to prepare the kids for the emotional impact. It was a very intense thing to perform.”
Krotz was present in two capacities. As a coach for the students acting in the skit, and also as a counselor from Specialty Counseling. The office in Cheyenne had two additional counselor volunteers present to be available for students who were emotionally triggered by the events and needed someone to talk to.
The lead character who serves as the impetus for the events was portrayed by WHS Senior, Sheldon Harnish.
“It was really impacting and intense for the people who acted it out. I definitely don’t plan on drinking and driving, but this put a nice steel bar under that. Consequences are a big deal,” said Harnish. “When they put me under arrest in handcuffs, the entire crowd was clapping – I was not happy about that at first, but then I realized it was a good thing they were clapping, the bad guy was being stopped.”
Krotz went on to explain how it was important to show he wasn’t a bad guy, he just made some bad decisions. If he’s played as a bad guy, the kids can’t relate to him. They need to understand that he’s just another kid.
Volunteers are paramount to the success of this program, and there were an impressive number from government agencies, law enforcement, businesses and residents. Wendy Palen, a lawyer from Glendo, volunteered to defend Harnish in the mock courtroom scene where he was convicted of Agitated Vehicular Homicide with a sentence of 10-15 years, plus another 7-10 years for Vehicular Assault, full retribution for the medical costs of the four victims injured in the crash, and felony status for the rest of his life.
Tony Krotz of Project Safe was there to help with the domestic violence sessions in the morning and then acted as the Bailiff for the courtroom scene in the afternoon. He had this to say, “I thought it went really well, especially for the first year. It was impressive to see the number of agencies involved and how they worked so well together. And even if it saves just one life, it’s worth it.”
The school hopes to have the program for every incoming Freshman class, but it does require significant donations and volunteers which could be a challenge in the upcoming years.
Harnish plans to someday have a career in law enforcement and thinks the program had a powerful effect on the kids that this sort of thing could really happen. He sums it up with this, “It’s a good thing for them to know that bad decisions have bad consequences – for more than just you.”