The sudden death of his best friend left University of Southern Mississippi student Davontae Washington heartbroken, bewildered and angry.
But rather than wallow aimlessly in his agony, the 18-year-old freshman decided to take action. Washington has chosen to honor the memory of fellow student LeJulia White by organizing a chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions (formerly known as Students Against Drunk Driving) on the Hattiesburg campus.
White, also 18, was killed in a two-vehicle accident on Aug. 20 at the intersection of U.S. 49 South and Hardy Street in Hattiesburg. The crash, which injured three other students in the car with White, occurred just one day after the 2009 fall semester began at Southern Miss. The driver of the other vehicle, 55-year-old Ronnie Matthews of Hattiesburg, was subsequently arrested and charged with DUI-causing a death.
Washington and White had originally met last April during a freshman orientation session at Southern Miss called Priority Preview. A spring and summer of casual conversation turned into a robust friendship by the time the fall semester dawned in mid-August.
“We talked every day, sometimes several times a day,” said Washington. “I don’t open up to a lot of people but I could talk about anything with LeJulia. I can honestly say she was my best friend.”
Washington said the overwhelming sense of grief left him lost and confused until the trip back from White’s wake in Canton, Miss.
“On the way home we passed some guys in a red F-150 truck and they were turning up beers,” he said. “It was a Sunday and I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I took that as a sign from God that I needed to do something, anything to honor LeJulia’s memory.”
The very next day Washington found the answer upon learning that the university did not have an active SADD chapter. Since that time, Washington has worked feverishly to collect charter information and meet related requirements for membership. He has assumed the role of interim president but hopes to have elections set up for chapter officers by the end of September.
Dr. Sidne Buelow, supervising psychologist with Student Counseling Services at Southern Miss, is serving as the new chapter’s adviser. She said the university’s new chapter will be devoted to helping students make safer choices and educating students to help friends who may be intoxicated get home safely by not driving and by not riding with a driver who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“Davontae Washington and his fellow students interested in forming this chapter of SADD have demonstrated high levels of initiative, professionalism, team spirit and commitment to be of service by disseminating information about the risks of driving drunk and related hazards,” said Buelow.
Founded in 1981, SADD (www.sadd.org) is a national non-profit organization with chapters in all 50 states. Nationwide, there are approximately 10,000 middle school, high school and college chapters with advisers for each.
SADD’s approach involves young people delivering education and prevention messages to their peers through school and community-wide activities and campaigns responsive to the needs of their particular locations. Projects may include peer-led classes and theme-focused forums, teen workshops, conferences and rallies, prevention education and leadership training, awareness-raising activities and legislative work.
Ironically, just two weeks after White’s death another suspected DUI accident claimed the life of a 2-year-old Hattiesburg child. Dr. Eddie Holloway, dean of students at Southern Miss, said the timing could not be more perfect for a new SADD chapter on campus.
“We have witnessed two recent deaths due to persons being intoxicated while operating a motor vehicle,” said Holloway. “I applaud Davontae for his vision and energy to reactivate SADD on the Southern Miss campus and wish the best as he calls to the attention of our students, staff members and local community the topic of substance abuse.”
Washington gets emotional when talking about the loss of his beloved friend. And he is determined to keep White’s memory alive through a mission he never expected to undertake.
“LeJulia’s mother sent her baby off to college and a few days later she was burying her,” he said. “I don’t want any other parents to be dealing with something like that.
“If starting this chapter on campus can make a difference in just one person’s life, then it will have all been worth it.”
University of Southern Mississippi freshman Davontae Washington, of Hattiesburg, has led the way in organizing a chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions on campus. (Southern Miss photo by Stephen Rouse)
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.