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DWI crash survivor speaks to students

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Sarah Panzau Evans shares her personal story about being ‘living proof’ after surviving a drunk driving car crash in 2003. She spoke about the effects of underaged drinking, driving under the influence and substance abuse to upperclassmen at Roswell High School on Tuesday morning and afternoon. She will be speaking at Goddard High School today and at schools in Dexter, Lake Arthur and Hagerman later in the week. (Alison Penn Photo)

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Speaker Sarah Panzau Evans shares her life lessons about choices on alcohol and substance abuse

A survivor of a drunk driving car crash is speaking to students in the Pecos Valley this week about potentially life-changing choices regarding alcohol and substance abuse.

A montage of photos and newspaper clippings showed Sarah Panzau Evans playing in volleyball games — and then, Evans at the scene of the crash and in the hospital — before she walked across the gym floor to share her story.

A volleyball player and a young person who believed she was invincible, Evans’ life changed after crashing her green Saturn early in the morning of Aug. 23, 2003, with a .31 blood alcohol content, after a night of drinking at age 21. She was driving 20-plus miles back home from St. Louis, Missouri, to her home in Belleville, Illinois.

From the crash, she lost her left arm up to her shoulder, sustained other injuries to her face and body and suffers from chronic nerve pain on the left side of her shoulder and face. After asked by a student, Evans’ said she did not have health insurance and the medical care costs over $1 million with state assistance.

“I’m covered from head to toe, on my back — everywhere there’s scars — and I wanted you guys to see what happened to my most beautiful body that I had because of the choices that I made in my life,” Evans said. “And some people think I might deserve this for making my choice to drive drunk. I always say that I understand it — why some people would feel that way, but it brings me to a memory with my mother in the hospital.”

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Evans said her mother reminded her that she took advantage of her own life and other lives when choosing to drive while intoxicated. Evans said her mother said she was fortunate to come out of her coma without facing charges for vehicular homicide and her only remaining hand handcuffed to her bedrail.

“To know that my choices could affect somebody’s life so badly and be so traumatic to somebody, it was like it made me realize how shallow I was because I never thought about that …” Evans said.

Fifteen years after the crash, Evans travels the nation speaking to students and sharing her story to be an example and shed awareness on such a tragic, impactful incident. Evans spoke twice at Roswell High School on Tuesday, once in the morning and the second presentation took place in the afternoon. Instead of a classical approach using statistics and pie graphs, Evans used humor and interaction with students, while using the example of her own life to discuss difficult and potentially life-altering topics.

“I do this because I am so passionate to not let any other family experience what I put my mother and the rest of my family through — and I don’t want these kids to ever have to go through the nightmare that I’ve been living — going through the hospital and 39 surgeries …” Evans said. “I don’t want any student, young teenager to have to go through what I’ve gone through, and what I’ll continue to go through for the rest of my life.

“I asked God and I talk to God every time before I go out and I say, ‘Just be with me.’ He is my voice, he’s my personality and he’s my passion — and let’s make a lasting impact on these students today. It’s just a driven purpose. I have a purpose and I feel like I need to talk as much as I can and get to as many places as I can before my time comes.”

Evans thanked her mother, who raised her as a single mother and was an army colonel, and her twin sister for their support and love in her life. Evans said she has been married for almost six years, is a step-mother to two high school-aged kids and is a “fur mom” of three dogs in North Carolina. She also played volleyball in the Paralympics and displayed her jersey.

She encouraged students to love themselves, accept their peers, be aware of how their choices can affect themselves and others, and to chase their dreams. The students gave Evans a standing ovation, asked questions and interacted with her after the presentation.

RHS students shared their insights with the Daily Record after the speech. Benjamin Simpson, 17, said he lost a sister to drunk driving and said he empathized with Evans’ presentation about overcoming the crash. Kaitlynn Wilson, 17, said she also plays volleyball and her mind was opened to the impact of her own choices to others. Miguel Abaray, 17, said Evans’ presentation was inspiring to him to not only avoid drinking and driving himself, but to encourage his peers to do the same.

Russ Greene, general manger at L&F Distributors — a family owned wholesaler of beer, wine, spirits and nonalcoholic brands — and board member on the Chaves County DWI Planning Council, said the company is associated with Evans and her speaking bureau to bring Evans’ message of responsible drinking choices to students in several locations in New Mexico and Texas. He said her message “resonates with youth,” she is “engaging with the crowd” and “makes a big impact.”

City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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