MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, will be headed by a dad, but that won't change its mission or its name, officials said yesterday.
Glynn Birch will be introduced today as the new president of the influential national group that was formed 25 years ago by mothers whose children were killed by drunk drivers. The 48-year-old, whose son was killed in 1988, will be the first father and the first African American to head the group.
"Drunk driving can kill anyone, no matter what race, no matter what gender. And I'm the face to deliver that message," Birch said yesterday.
He has repeated that message, and his story, ever since 21-month-old Courtney ran out into the street when he heard the ice cream truck and was struck by a drunk driver going 70 mph on an Orlando residential street, Birch said.
Birch has told convicted offenders in a Kissimmee, Fla., courtroom about the way his son used to jump up and down in his bed every morning. And how he helped dress Courtney that sunny morning, May 3, 1988, only to leave work hours later for the hospital, where doctors told him his son had been dragged 150 feet and "never had a chance."
He has taken his story to courtrooms, classrooms and military bases. He visited the Class of 2004 at one Florida high school, telling the teenagers in the year Courtney would have graduated from high school not to drink and drive. He got his other son, Rahmlee, now 25, to come speak alongside him, to tell offenders how much he missed his little brother.
Birch is earnest, intense and smooth. He went from selling men's suits to vacuum cleaners to being an account executive with cable television before he made MADD his full-time job.
Other leaders of MADD said that they were drawn to him, that they liked his charisma, one official said.
"We had a consultant come in and do interviews with him on camera. His ability to connect, his warmth, his energy was really apparent," said Wendy Hamilton, the outgoing MADD president, who officially passes the torch for the three-year post to Birch on July 1. "People still think MADD is just angry women, but we're not. We're moms and dads and uncles and aunts and grandparents."
Birch was elected after running against two women, Hamilton said. The other candidates had experience and passion, but Birch's warmth and unusual profile made him the winner and perfect for MADD's direction.
In preparation for the group's 25th anniversary, the top leaders brought in focus groups and consultants. They thought about changing the acronym, the image, the mission. In the end, they decided to focus more sharply on habitual drunk drivers and to bring their message to a more diverse population, both in terms of prevention and for support of victims.
Birch had already begun working yesterday, meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to try to reverse an administration proposal to divert $1.27 billion in restitution money from the Crime Victims Fund. That helps pay for the programs like the outreach that got Birch involved in MADD in 1988, he said.
After his son was killed, he said, he had a hard time figuring out where to turn his anger and frustration. There was no support group for fathers, and Birch felt weird calling MADD, but his lawyer pushed him to call the group, he said.
That's how Birch met Janet Dunnigan, the victim's advocate who helped him write a victim impact statement for the sentencing of the driver who killed Courtney. The driver was on a suspended license after four convictions for driving under the influence, and he had a .26 percent blood alcohol content after allegedly consuming 18 beers, Birch said.
The driver was sentenced to 41/2 years in prison, Birch said.
Courtney's death and the aftermath, Birch said, shattered his life and ruined his marriage, which ended in divorce two years after the crash. But it gave Birch the passion to work tirelessly for MADD.
"I really felt that my story could make an impact," he said. "I want to be a different face. I want to make a difference. I can't wait to get started."