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Brandon’s Dad DUI Campaign for Life

Saturday, May 24, 2014 @ 12:05 AM

Posted by Ron Wilshire

West-Shomokin-HS-April-25-14-CopyNEW BETHLEHEM, Pa. (EYT) – Vernon Hilyer is quick to admit he is serving a life sentence, and he is doing his best to make sure other parents cannot make the same claim.

In 2008, he buried his only son, Brandon, after a DUI accident, and the following year he launched his Brandon’s Dad DUI Awareness campaign, including his frank talks with school students about the consequences of alcohol.

“My son, Brandon, was an outstanding all-American kid that was full of life, but alcohol impaired his control and eventually robbed him of life,” said Hilyer. “My ‘life sentence’ is not one behind bars but a life full of sadness and emptiness. I’ve lost my golden star.  I’ve lost my son who will never marry, never have children, or ever give me a grandchild.”

Six years ago he offered his first talk about his son and how others can avoid their own “life sentence.”  Starting with the seven school districts in Clarion County, Hilyer has now presented his talk to many other high schools, universities, juvenile facilities, boy scouts, fire companies, and DUI classes.

A list of the schools and other locations he has visited are listed on his website at

His talk is simple and direct about his son’s fight with alcohol and the effects his choices had on everyone who knew and loved him.  Hilyer also shares stories about his son’s drinking world, both in high school and in college that many people can relate to in their own lives.

Brandon’s Dad Program Started in 2009

His first talks were with victim’s impact through MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) in Clarion, Venango, and Butler counties, starting on Feb. 28, 2008, five months after he buried his son.  He is also quick to add that he is not affiliated with MADD in any way because he is “more involved with convincing a kid not to start drinking, let alone worry about him drinking and driving. MADD’s approach is that you’ve drunk and driven and don’t do it again. That’s why we’re different.”

He also approached the seven school districts in Clarion County and said, “I want to talk to kids from my heart and save their butts from dying.”

After he talked to students at North Clarion with the State Police from Tionesta, Officer Tom Shawley asked if he could also speak with students in the two Forest County schools.

Partnerships also evolved with PennDOT in Indiana County and the Armstrong Indiana Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission where he also serves as coalition co-chair.

Getting the Message Out

newbillboard_e2okHilyer always looks for new ways to get his message out, and he also receives suggestions from people who visit his presentations.  He was always promoting his email address on Yahoo to allow people to communicate, but a chance meeting a few years ago with a PennDOT representative led to social media.

“I had my email address at [email protected], and she said you need to get on Facebook,” said Hilyer. “She said social media is where it’s at today.”

Three years later Brandon’s Dad on Facebook has nearly 3,000 people who have liked the page.  Students who have heard the presentations offer their thoughts and thanks on the programs.

Another bit of advice also came from a PennDOT employee.

“She said that if you’re going to schools, you can’t do it for nothing,” explained Hilyer.  “She said nobody will ever want to hear it because they will think that you are just a father wanting to make a difference; you have to set a fee.”

His set fee for a 60-mile is $300.00 to cover costs, but it doesn’t cover his time and the heartbreak every time he goes through the program.

“It doesn’t really matter because if one kid lives, that’s what’s important.  I’m not the textbook guy; I’m the real guy.  It’s from my heart.  It’s not what I get paid to do; it’s what I do.”

He estimates he does 9 to 12 programs a year, but this year it’s up to 15.  They are usually over a four-week period over the prom period.

“The sad part about my program is it’s hard to get word out about how impactful it is,” said Hilyer.  “I’ve sent DVD’s out, I’ve called schools, and they’ll say yeah, yeah, yeah, but when I get one school to call another school or get a guidance councilor to call a school and say you should look at this program, I’m in every time.”

“I spoke at Punxsutawney High School a week ago Tuesday, and at the end of the talk had a young girl Facebook me and say she’s only been in Punxsutawney a few months.  She said she had been in a bad DUI crash with her boyfriend who was drinking, and he almost killed her, and she now lives in Punxsutawney.  She said all of her friends back in Freedom High School in Butler County are all going to die unless I go down there and talk to them.”

“I talked to an organizer at the school and said I want to read this letter to her.  I’m not going to tell you who it’s from.  It wasn’t more than three sentences into it and said she knew who it was.  The organizer said if that student wrote this letter, ‘I’m looking for funding, and we’re bringing you.’”

When speaking to schools, Hilyer usually says that the main reason he is there to find the one student that needs to understand why I’m there.

“I was at South Park High School near Pittsburgh recently, and I had this little girl come up to me and tears were running down her cheek and said I’m the one.  I’m the one you came here to see.  That’s why I do what I do.”

Billboards have also been an important method of getting his message out, and several people were critical in supporting his efforts.

“I saw that some school districts had billboards that said the students in each school district did not do drugs in each of the Clarion County school districts,” said Hilyer.  “I said to myself you need to get a billboard out there and get awareness, and the very first billboard I did was coming from Trader Horn, and it was powerful because there it was right in front of your face.  I paid for the first one and everyone was saying how great that was and said this is the answer.”

“So, I contacted Greg Wolf and told him I was looking to put billboards in every school district.  I asked him that if I buy the vinyl prints, could you put them up for a public or community service?  He said absolutely. ‘I will give you a billboard in every school district.'”

“I ordered seven prints through Vinyl Graphics, and we sent them down to the printer, and the printer sent a note back saying that because of this project, we’re going to print them at half price for you.  I sent letters out to all of the churches in Clarion County for donations.  I worked at the glass plant, and when it shut down, there was some money left over in a health and welfare fund, and Bill Smith from New Bethlehem decided to give it for the billboards.  I never put in a nickel.  Churches and friends donated everything.”

Parents Probably Know

Addiction to alcohol can also be traced to the background of a student’s family, according Hilyer.  If parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles have a drinking problem, students need to be aware of it.

He also thinks parents are not really surprised when they find out their children are drinking and estimates 90 percent of the time, the parents are not surprised.

“I knew Brandon drank, but I just tried to brush it aside.  A lot of times parents supplying for the kids and they think it’s cool, and they’re reliving their youth.  You’re not only breaking the law, you’re teaching your kid to die.”

“Both parents know, but again like me it’s just something you hope that someday it will go away.  You don’t know how to scare that boogeyman away, but that boogeyman ain’t leaving.  I’ll say it bluntly.  It’s the parent’s fault; it’s my generation that made it what it is today, even though I don’t drink and have never drank.  It’s our generation that has done this to the kids.”

“We need to tell this generation it’s something you need to get the hell away from.”

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