Rick McPherson had been a sheriff’s deputy in Pennington County, South Dakota, for three years, and he wanted to quit. After decades working in law enforcement, he had become tired of dealing with death.
“Obviously picking up bodies at accidents, teenagers needlessly dying over my years of law enforcement … I was pretty disgusted by it,” he said.
In early 2005, he was talking to a friend who was a defense attorney who told him to busy his mind by creating some sort of program that would keep teens, especially young drivers, sober and alive.
So, in 2006, McPherson created Freshman Impact and presented it to the school district in Wall, South Dakota. It was approved, and he worked with 45 students that first year, teaching them about how to drive safely, of the dangers of alcohol and drunk driving.
In the years since, it’s spread to four states — including, as of May, Wyoming — and more than 3,000 high school freshmen. On Wednesday, 235 students from several Wyoming towns — including Wright, Lusk and Sundance — will travel to Newcastle’s high school to take part in the program’s expanded offerings. In 25-minute increments, they’ll learn about sexual violence, social media, teen suicide, drug and alcohol prevention, and more.
Students will also try to navigate an obstacle course in a four-wheeler side-by-side while wearing goggles that mirror the effects of being drunk.
The day culminates with a skit, simulating a high school party that ends in a drunk-driving accident, a real Life Flight helicopter ride for “injured” students, a coffin with a student inside of it and a trial for the young people involved in the faux accident.
“It’s not just about drinking and driving,” McPherson said of the program, which is a nonprofit funded through donations and staffed by volunteers. “It’s about distracted driving. It’s about saving teen lives. Making them more aware of the choices they face. Encouraging them to make the right choice, a good choice.”
Lisa Williams, the coordinator for the event in Newcastle and a parent of two high school students in Lusk, said she took her son to Freshman Impact in South Dakota when he was younger. He told her every student needed to see it, so she started working to bring it to Wyoming.
The event was first held in May, but Williams said organizers decided to host it again in the fall. On Wednesday, it’s Newcastle, and next week, Buffalo. McPherson said he’ll be giving a shorter presentation in Wheatland, with the goal of having the full Freshman Impact program in the community by next year.
McPherson, who retired from law enforcement in February after more than 30 years, said his goal is to spread the program across the four states who have the worst teen drivers. According to WalletHub, that would be South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.
He’s achieved that goal, though there’s room to spread further. He’s been told he could go national, but he said he’d have to freeze accepting new schools in 2019 unless the organization received more funding.
“It’s grown to be a major passion of mine, mainly because of past experiences,” McPherson said, referencing not only his work in law enforcement but the effect alcoholism has had on his family. “I love it when I can see results and what it’s doing to students.”
Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann