by Jill Ragar Esfeld
OVERLAND PARK — If you escaped the summer heat at the movie theater, or just stayed inside and channel surfed, you probably saw the public service announcement produced by St. Thomas Aquinas High School junior Chelsea Didde, winner of this year’s STOP Underage Drinking Project PSA Competition. You may even have recognized some of its stars, all local students.
But the real star of the video can’t be seen on the big screen. He was the inspiration in Chelsea’s heart that made all the effort she put into the project — win or lose — worthwhile.
Jared Cheek was a seminarian for the archdiocese who died in an alcohol- related traffic accident in 2005. He was also Chelsea’s favorite summer camp counselor. She remembers vividly the loss she felt the day an announcement came over her school’s intercom informing students that Cheek had died.
“You know, it was unfair. He was a seminarian; he was a camp counselor; a great, amazing guy,” she said. “That was really hard.”
When her video creation teacher, Al Minor, suggested she enter the PSA contest cosponsored by STOP and the Regional Prevention Center, Chelsea jumped at the chance. She really didn’t think she would win, but knew she wanted this opportunity to remember Cheek in a special way.
“I felt this was something I could stand up for,” she said.
Chelsea wanted her video to be positive and to show other kids they don’t have to stay at home on Friday night if they don’t drink; they can still go to movies, go to parties and have fun.
Her focus was right in line with the message the coalition wanted to convey.
“The unique thing was her emphasis on the positive behaviors,” said Karen Leisner, certified prevention specialist for STOP. “It really put the message directly in line with where we want to go as a coalition. Yes, we have a problem with substance abuse, but there are so many people out there who aren’t engaging in these behaviors.”
Fourteen videos were submitted to the competition. The board and the coalition met and reviewed them, and Chelsea’s was the unanimous winner.
Jason Verbeckmoes, who attends Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, is the prevention project coordinator for STOP. He manages a federal grant that ensures that Chelsea’s PSA will run in all the Johnson County AMC Theaters, Dickinson Theaters and Time Warner Cable TV through mid-September. The video will also be distributed to middle and high schools throughout the Johnson County area.
Verbeckmoes was part of the group reviewing the contest submissions and praised Chelsea’s video for its affirmative approach.
“It was very well done and it’s not negative in any way,” he said. “It’s a very positive view of why this particular student chooses to be drug free.”
Chelsea did most of the work on the 30-second commercial at home on her laptop computer using the Adobe Premier Pro Video — a program she’s used since video production first sparked her interest in the seventh grade. She created the non-copyrighted sound track required by the competition at school. The footage for the video was pictures and clips from actual events — games, parties and dances — she had attended with friends.
“I used pictures that would tie together everyone’s high school experience, and just showed that all that stuff can happen without alcohol,” she explained. “I really wanted to tie in the happiness at the beginning with the devastation at the end.”
The end of the video shows a fatal car crash. Chelsea’s narration is to the point: “Your teenage years can be some of the best years of your life, but only if you remember them.”
Chelsea wanted to emphasize the good times in high school, while reminding students that, in one night, they can mess up their whole future: A lesson she saw clearly the day Cheek died.
“It’s not your job to take away your life or other people’s lives by accident,” she said. “It’s God’s decision when you are done here.”
Chelsea saw the PSA publicly broadcast for the first time a few weeks ago. She was waiting with friends in a theater lobby, when she heard the beat of some music she thought she recognized. About the time she realized it was the music from her video, her friends started screaming.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute that sounds familiar,’ and then I looked up and my friends started screaming, ‘You’re on TV! You’re on TV!’”
Chelsea headed back to school this fall with mixed anticipation. She wasn’t sure everyone would be as accepting as her friends.
“It will be interesting to see people who maybe don’t share my view, who maybe don’t see [underage drinking] as a bad thing,” she said. “But as far as my friends, they’ve been amazing — so proud of me.”
Chelsea plays volleyball for St. Thomas Aquinas and is a member of the high school’s Clean Team and SADD, both clubs that promote awareness of drug and alcohol abuse. She’s a youth leader at her parish, Church of the Nativity in Leawood, and also active in TEC (Teens Encounter Christ). She spent her last weekend this summer volunteering at a TEC retreat led by Cheek’s father, Rick.
“That really inspired me because his dad is so involved with youth,” she said.
Despite all these activities, Chelsea has time to dream about a future when she hopes to use her love and talent for video production in the fields of advertising or marketing. But for the immediate future, she’s already coming up with ideas for next year’s PSA competition.
“I can’t wait to see what that looks like,” said Leisner. “She’s definitely set the tone and created some big footsteps to follow. She’s very talented; we’re very proud of her.”