COVINGTON - Unlike many 24-year-olds living in a big city, Columbia, S.C., resident Eric Elsey doesn't drink alcohol. He didn't celebrate his 21st birthday drinking beer with friends, and he's always the designated driver for his friends who do drink too much.
Things were different, though, when he was in his teens. He would party on the weekends with his friends and get alcohol from those older than 21; he wasn't worried about drinking and driving.
Elsey's life changed when he was 18. After a night of drinking with friends, he blacked out while he was driving his Honda Accord on Interstate 77 in South Carolina, striking the vehicle of 58-year-old Georgia resident Joseph Giddens, who later died from his injuries.
"I don't even remember the wreck until afterwards," Elsey said Friday, adding that he doesn't know how much he had to drink that fateful night. "I really didn't know what happened. I didn't know I hit anybody until I got to the hospital and the cop was telling me my charges."
Elsey received some bumps and bruises, and his friend sustained some injuries and later recovered.
A month later, he turned himself in to authorities after being charged with felony DUI and reckless homicide; he was later bailed out of jail by his father. About a year later, he went to trial for the accident and pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of DUI and reckless homicide.
At the trial, Elsey received a surprise from the victim's family.
"Our family asked that he serve one year," said Wendy Williams, one of Giddens' daughters. "We decided as a family that we had to first forgive him."
Elsey served the one-year prison time and is now out on parole until 2009. He must undergo random drug screenings and is still paying fines.
But he and the Giddens' family also talk and often spend time together. The family asked him to join them at school assemblies to encourage teens not to drink and drive.
"It's the least I could do for what happened," Elsey said. "I think there is a great need for people to speak to kids because it happens everywhere."
This week, students in Newton and Rockdale counties will get to hear from Elsey and members of the Giddens' family.
The Joe Giddens Youth Mission Inc. will hold an assembly at Alcovy High School in Covington at 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and at Salem High School in Conyers at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. An assembly will be held at 8:15 and 9 a.m. Wednesday at Rockdale County High School and at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Young Americans Christian School in Conyers. Heritage High School students will gather for the assembly at 8:15 a.m. Thursday.
The assemblies feature Elsey, Williams and motivational speaker Dan Moran.
"We felt a call to continue dad's legacy," Williams said of Giddens, who served as chairman of the Washington County Board of Education and president of the Georgia Alliance for Children. "We want to go in the schools and make a difference."
Elsey said he hopes everybody can learn from his mistakes.
"Everybody needs to try to learn from my mistakes," he said. "I don't touch alcohol anymore, and I'm always preaching to my friends to call me if they need a ride."
The group also will hold an event called Collision at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at First Baptist Church of Conyers, located at 2100 Ga. Highway 138 N.E.
A free dinner from Angel Food Ministries will be served at 5:30 p.m. at the church, followed by the program at 6:30 p.m. Guests are encouraged to register by Monday by calling 770-483-8700, ext. 121.
Elsey suggested parents also attend the event, which is open to the public and features the same speakers from the assemblies.
"A lot of parents are dumbfounded when they find out stuff like (underage drinking) happens," he said. "A lot of parents look the other way and some don't care."
Michelle Floyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SideBar: If You Go
What: The Joe Giddens Youth Mission School Assemblies
Who: Wendy Williams, Dan Moran, Eric Elsey to speak
When and where: 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. Tuesday - Alcovy High School
· 1:30 p.m. Tuesday - Salem High School
· 8:15 and 9 a.m. Wednesday - Rockdale County High School
· 10:30 a.m. Wednesday - Young Americans Christian School
· 8:15 a.m. Thursday - Heritage High School
"Collision," an event, featuring the same guest speakers, will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at First Baptist Church of Conyers, 2100 Ga. Highway 138 N.E. A free dinner will be served at 5:30 p.m.