Tears flow down young cheeks and sleeves mop damp eyes as Greg Drew pounds home his point about the consequences of making bad decisions.
The gruff retired firefighter from Fort Langley is pacing back and forth on the hardwood gym floor at Belmont secondary, every clomp from his well-worn cowboy boots helping to rivet the attention of the Grade 12s gathered in the stands.
It’s his first ICBC-sponsored presentation to a grad class on Vancouver Island, almost 11 years after his son, Jay, died from injuries suffered in a high-speed, single-vehicle car wreck near the suburban Lower Mainland town.
“Do you know what it’s like to hold your son’s hand as his heart beats its last beat?” he bellows, his words reverberating through the high-ceilinged room.
Drew proceeds to tell the shocked teens how horrible that felt and the guilt he felt at not being able to help his younger son.
Then, as if his impassioned speech wasn’t enough about the consequences of such bad decisions as drinking and driving, or, in his son’s case, driving way too fast back home to get that case of beer his older brother bought him – yet another bad choice, Drew says – he pulls out the trump card.
After imploring the students to get a dialogue going with their parents, hug them and their siblings and be grateful for what they have, he laments not being able to hug Jay anymore. As he calmly says he still talks to him, Drew reaches into a bag behind him, pulls out a solid black box and introduces his late son’s cremated remains to the dumbstruck crowd.
One finished he receives a heartfelt standing ovation and there are lots more tears to go around, as well as a handful of hugs for the still-grieving dad from random students.
“That hit home more than other presentations we’ve had,” says student Kiana Pomponio, clearly shaken by Drew’s words and descriptions of the heartbreak felt by family and friends of the victims of preventable car crashes. “His personal stories really got to people. I think he touched more than the ‘one person’ he hoped to influence with his talk.”
Fellow student Haley More was struck by how he weaved several tragic stories of crashes affecting families in one neighbourhood and school, “just the network of people who are affected and the domino effect it can have.”
Over the years, Belmont principal Ray Miller has listened to many pre-grad presentations, designed to impress upon students the importance of making smart decisions ahead of and during their celebrations.
Even he was surprised at Drew’s strategy.
“This’d be the first time we’ve had the created remains of a victim brought in with his father,” Miller says.
“That in itself had a major impact on the students.”
While he worries about triggering students who may have suffered through similar tragedies – the school has counsellors at the ready for such instances – the intention of such talks is not to scare students, he says. “It’s to bring forward the reality of poor decisions.”
Outside the gym, where he has hauled Jay’s mangled Eagle Talon for students to file past before and after the presentation, as he does with all of his talks, Drew spoke about the passion he still has for keeping kids safe and relaying a parents’ grief.
“Any parents who have gone through this know it changes your life,” he says.
“The tidal wave hits the immediate family and just destroys them. Then the ripple effect goes through the extended family, which for a lot of kids is their school.”
He reiterates his wish that his words prompt just one student to make a different decision, to sidestep the “Superman syndrome that makes you think you’re invincible.”
If the reactions of members of Belmont’s class of 2014 are any indication, he’ll likely be granted that wish.