High school and even middle school students - many too young to drive - are joining the Ensign John R. Elliott Hero Campaign for Designated Drivers to combat drunk driving. They are participating with teachers and parents in large numbers at the second annual HERO Walk on the Ocean City Boardwalk later this month.

"I do pageants, and a friend of one of my pageant sisters died because of a drunk driver," said Amy Phillips, 15, of Seaville in Upper Township, a representative of Ocean City High School's Leadership Club. "I support her by walking."

Ocean City Superintendent of Schools Kathy Taylor said all the district's schools will have a presence at the Oct. 14 walk.

Other districts expected to generate large turnouts include Egg Harbor Township, Pleasantville, and the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District. The walk benefits the HERO campaign, a nonprofit group that promotes the use of sober designated drivers.

There is hope that drunk driving among young people is on the decrease nationwide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that the prevalence of self-reported drinking and driving among high school students ages 16 and older declined by 54 percent, from 22 percent in 2001 to 10 percent in 2011. But that still leaves a lot of kids engaging in risky behavior.

Kira Kelly, 15, of Ocean City, is sophomore class president and organized her class for the walk. While she hasn't been personally affected by a drunk driving tragedy, she said it benefits the entire community to help younger kids become aware of the issue before getting a license.

Interact Club leader Caliope Yiannos, 15, of Upper Township agreed.

"It gives people a good idea of what to prepare for," Yiannos said.

Richard Stockton College of New Jersey also expects to have a large presence at this year's walk, led by 2012 HERO of the Year at Stockton College Christine Padovani, a senior psychology and education major from Lacey Township.

The 21-year-old plans to bring the 17 freshman for whom she is resident assistant, she said.

The HERO club on campus, of which she is a member, is also organizing students to walk. Padovani said she has been the designated driver for her group of friends for years.

"It's like my job," she said.

Her own family has been touched by a drunk-driving tragedy.

"My aunt was on her way to my cousin's wedding, when she was hit by a drunk driver and killed instantly," Padovani said. "I never want anything like that to happen to another family."

The Egg Harbor Township School District hopes to field about 1,000 students, parents and staff for the walk.

"The theme for our students at school this year is, 'Proud to be an EHT Hero,'" said Scott McCartney, superintendent of Egg Harbor Township School District. "We partnered with the HERO Campaign, because we believe in their message for our students."

Alicia Scelso, an assistant principal at Egg Harbor Township High School, said the district already has 12 teams signed up. Cheerleaders, the field hockey team, the National Honor Society, and the tennis team are among the groups going.

Barbara Dell-Aringa, a health and physical education teacher at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing, said her school is in a friendly competition with two sister high schools - Cedar Creek in Egg Harbor City and Absegami in Galloway Township - to see which can raise the most money.

Also fielding teams of walkers are parents of children killed by drunk drivers.

Sherrie Branca's son Ricci Branca, 17, was killed by a repeat offender drunk driver in July 2006, as he rode his bike along Ocean Drive near Ocean City. "Ricci's Law," which requires ignition locks on cars for convicted drunken drivers whose blood alcohol content was 0.15 and above, was named for Branca.

Sherrie Branca was at a recent organizing meeting for the walk, with her daughter Adriene Branca, 29. She expects to double the size of her team to more than 20 this year.

Donnah Marvel, of Somers Point, lost her son Nikk, 18, when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver as he walked on Route 9 in Linwood in 2004. Marvel said her team is Marvelous Nikk, and has nine members so far.

HERO Campaign Chairman William Elliott, of Egg Harbor Township, started the campaign with his wife Muriel in memory of their son, Navy Ensign John Elliott, who lost his life to a drunken driver in July, 2000. John Elliott had graduated two months earlier from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he was named the outstanding HERO (Human Education Resource Officer) of his class.

According to the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety, alcohol-related crashes cause about 200 deaths per year in New Jersey - about 32 percent of all traffic fatalities.

Ocean City High School Cheerleader co-captains Maddison Halliday, 17; and and Lexie Phifer, 17, both of Upper Township, said they and their friends are new drivers, and they want to promote safe habits.

"We want to let our peers and kids from around the area be aware, that we really need to be safe," said Phifer, about the need to use designated drivers whenever alcohol is involved in parties or events. "We're not as invincible as we think we are."

Stockton's Padovani said she isn't a drinker, and doesn't need alcohol to have a good time.

"Even if I wasn't going to a party or event that alcohol was involved in, I would volunteer to pick people up. I'd say, 'Here's my number. Call me,'" she said.

She said the message of the HERO Campaign is that drinking should be done responsibly.

"Make the right decisions about getting home," she said. "You are still holding to the standards of the campaign by making prior arrangements. You're making the roads safe (by arranging for a designated driver)."

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:


If You Go

HERO Walk to benefit HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers,

9 a.m. Sunday, Ocean City Boardwalk at Sixth Street. 5K to 20th Street. and back. Pre-register at TheHEROWalk.org or day of the event. $20 adults; $10 high school/college students; $5 ages 14 and younger. Includes food, entertainment, trophies and prizes. Call Jaime Muratore at 609-332-6205.