WESTPORT - More than 500 students, parents, and other community leaders gathered at the Essex County Fairgrounds in Westport April 25 to show their support in the fight against under-age drinking and impaired driving.
The event was sponsored by the Bringing Essex County's Strengths Together (BEST) Partnership, and included a walk around the fairgrounds' half-mile track, guest speakers and prize giveaways.
At the forefront of the rally was William James, whose daughter, Shannon, was one of two girls killed while riding with an under-age drinker in April 2008. James spoke of his loss and urged the youth to take a harder stance on under-age drinking.
"It's a tragedy losing your daughter at 16 years old," said James. "I've lost my daughter; I can't bring her back, but hopefully we can help save other kids."
Youth from every corner of Essex County came to participate, with many schools offering to transport students by the bus load.
Moriah senior Jim Carlson was among the many students present, and said James's speech held an important message, especially for the seventh and eighth graders who made up a majority of youth at the rally. "It's the real deal," Carlson said. "Here she was the typical great student, and one night changes the rest of her life and her family's lives."
Essex County District Attorney Julie Garcia said the youth were very receptive to James's message.
"It's a community problem, and it really needs to be addressed as a community," said Garcia, who co-chairs the BEST Partnership, a coalition of local law enforcement and youth organizations.
"You have to be consistent with the message throughout the year," she added. "All of these organizations are sending the same message."
State Police Capt. John Tibbitts, the other co-chair for BEST, said the large turnout was encouraging for those trying to prevent future tragedies.
"It's like a pyramid," said Tibbitts. "You get a couple of kids and they tell their friends, then they tell their friends, and so on until you get the idea out that not every kid goes out and drinks."
Many students took an active role in the rally, including Newcomb seventh graders Caitlyn Yandon, Nicole Bohannon, Peyton Gould, and Becca Marra, who performed a rap about under-age drinking.
"We wanted to do something different and get a lot of people excited," said Yandon. "I think it's a really good cause. It's important to let people know about it."
James, too, was encouraged by the well-attended event and hopeful that the strong community effort would influence youth in a positive way.
"The sad thing is these kids are probably not the ones we need to talk to," said James, "but maybe they can bring it back to their friends. If we can save one kid's life, then it's a positive."