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Learning Center Experience
Elizabeth G. Donnellan, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Faculty
“How do we make a difference? How do we
change the world?” these questions hang heavy in classrooms around the world.
Students and their teachers grapple with notions of volunteerism, altruism, and
heroism, ultimately deciding that while everyone should try, only a few will
succeed in creating sweeping change. Examples of such change makers include
Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. However, the focus should be on the
countless individuals who work tirelessly to help others make qualitative changes
in their lives. Many of these quiet heroes are women who never intended to
create large-scale change—who never considered a career in social service. While
some of these women became famous for their efforts, many do not. Yet all
manage to leave their indelible mark on society and on the individuals whom
Most people have heard of Clara Barton and
her efforts to found the Red Cross. She trained as a teacher in the 1800s
during a time when the field was dominated by men and then worked for the
government. During the Civil War, she was surrounded by wounded soldiers who
needed beds and medical attention. However, there were long delays in receiving
supplies and treatment. Many of the wounded warriors were former students of
hers. Watching them was unbearable to her, so she decided on action. She made
it her mission to organize the aid effort so that army hospitals had beds and
After the war ended, her passion for
helping others grew as she lobbied the government to develop a better system
for delivering supplies and aid. Eventually, she and some of her well-connected
friends created the United States’ first chapter of the Red Cross. Her
well-earned title, “Angel of the Battlefield,” and lifelong work of providing support to
disaster victims helped to immortalize her as one of the first brave female
social service heroines (Crompton, 2009). It was her persistent drive that
helped make significant changes in how aid is disbursed to trauma-torn areas of
the world today. She served as a role model for how to transform empathetic
passion into effective action, paving the way for future women leaders.
Many of these female leaders would
discover their passion for helping others only after suffering great personal
tragedy. Candy Lightner is one of those women. She never envisioned a life of
public service, of promoting healthy habits and the dangers of drinking and
driving. It was three separate but uncanny events that changed the course of
both Candy’s and her children’s lives. In the span of a few years, her oldest
daughter was injured by a drunk driver while driving home from school. Her son
was seriously injured by a driver who was high on tranquilizers and her
youngest daughter was killed by a drunk driver. The loss of her daughter to a
habitual drunk driver who had just been released from jail provided the impetus
for her to create a public forum to discuss the dangers of drunk driving. She
used her anger at her daughter’s senseless death to motivate her next actions.
On May 7, 1980, just 4 days after her
daughter’s funeral, she began Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She turned her
grief and outrage into a nonstop public service campaign highlighting the
dangers of drinking and driving. She faced criticism and ridicule as she
continued her efforts until President Reagan invited her to lead his Blue
Ribbon Commission on drunk driving in 1982.
Her efforts were rewarded as the
government issued a challenge to all states to increase the legal age of
alcohol consumption and to train police officers for drunk driving patrols. Her
efforts helped to reduce the death rate for alcohol related accidents by 70% in
a 5-year period (Lightner, 1999). She worked with high schools to develop alcohol-free
prom events and to add alcohol awareness to driver’s education curricula. MADD
started chapters all over the country in many high schools as students and
parents joined the grassroots effort to prevent alcohol-related accidents. Though
she won many awards for her work, she maintains that her greatest contribution
was invigorating the drug prevention field with her lobbying efforts sustained
by the pain of the loss of her daughter. Her work created a model that shows
how an individual can promote change in the face of powerful lobbies and
governmental bureaucracy (Lightner, 1999).
Sadly, despite the work of these women and
those like them, mothers continue to lose children daily due to mental health
and addiction issues. In December of 2011, another mother lost a child to
addiction. In this case, Trish Glowacki’s son Charlie was 1 week away from
celebrating his 21st birthday. He had already struggled with
addictions and managed to achieve and maintain his sobriety until his relapse.
He took an overdose of OxyContin and died soon after. His mother, a songwriter,
writer, and actress, could not rest until she found a way to educate other
parents on the dangers of prescription opiates (something that many adults have
in their medicine cabinets at some point). As the women before her used their
talents, Trish used hers to write and produce a movie to teach teens about how
easy it is to develop an addiction.
The movie, titled “WARNING: Take Only as Directed,”
was released on YouTube, Facebook, and other public sites as a way to reach
teens. The movie is reminiscent of Glee, portraying the lives of teens as they
confront typical challenges. Instead of selling the rights to the movie,
Glowacki and her family offer it as a free tool to be used by parents, drug
prevention professionals, legislatures, teachers, school counselors, and most
importantly, teens. She worked with educators and addictions professionals to
develop school curricula that can be used to teach teens about the dangers of
Trish works long hours to promote the drug
prevention message, granting interviews to media, speaking to students in
schools and addiction treatment centers, and presenting at research
conferences. This was how I met Trish. As a professor of psychology and
addictions at Kaplan University, I follow drug prevention and treatment
research and trends carefully. When I first saw Trish being interviewed on a
Sunday news show, I paid close attention. Her story, though sadly familiar to
all too many women, was compelling. She was honest about not knowing that her
son was addicted until the addiction had taken hold. She bravely recounted the
stories of his and her suffering and of his bravery.
I reached out to her the next day not
expecting a response (even automated). My intent was to introduce her film at
the national addiction conference and to discuss the state of drug prevention
in our country. I asked for permission and invited her to join me in this discussion.
To my surprise, she replied within hours and offered to provide whatever
materials were needed for our presentation.
Trish’s persistent efforts to deliver her
potent message to those who need it most echoes those of the women who came before
her. There is no doubt that her selfless efforts have already helped many teens
and parents to better understand addiction. Her willingness to spread her
message to anyone who might hear it provides us with a powerful model for how
to change the world. This is how we make a difference—turn our passion into a
strong and caring message and tell it to anyone who will listen.
From Grief to Anger: Making One MADD. In: Frantzich, S.E. Citizen
Democracy: Political Activists in a Cynical Age. Lanham, MD: Rowman &
S.E. (2009). Clara Barton: Humanitarian. New York: Chelsea House.
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