Over the last 15 years, the John R. Elliott HERO Campaign has made a difference to life in South Jersey — and far beyond the borders of its home state. And knowing that has made all the difference to the family of Elliott, the Egg Harbor Township resident who was killed by a drunken driver in 2000, at age 22, just two weeks after his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy.
His parents, Bill and Muriel, and sister, Jennifer, started the HERO campaign as a way to spread the concept of designated drivers. Their goal was to make the idea of a nondrinking driver, a person who agrees to get everyone home safely from a night out, more common — to the point that it becomes not just accepted but expected among families and friends.
Those designated drivers are the heroes of the campaign’s name — which was called that because of an award John Elliott won at the Naval Academy. He was honored as his graduating class’ outstanding Human Education Resources Officer, or HERO.
And his father says encouraging and honoring the contributions of those sober-driving heroes has definitely been therapeutic for the Elliott family, which is set to mark the HERO Campaign’s 15th anniversary and its success with a “bittersweet” brunch Sunday, a sold-out fundraiser at the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway Township.
“There’s a part of you every day that misses your son,” Bill Elliott says. “But there’s also a point of pride in knowing that this has become his living legacy, something that will help others — which is what John was all about.”
The family is confident their campaign has saved lives — particularly locally, where a still-growing total of 105 bars, restaurants and liquor stores in Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties have joined as partners. Most of those businesses give drivers who pledge not to drink free sodas or other soft drinks while they’re out for the night with friends who are drinking.
“It’s certainly heartwarming and gratifying to see the support the HERO Campaign has generated,” Bill Elliott says. “The mission and the message have both resonated with people. The point is to keep everyone safe, and most people can relate to wanting to avoid getting that dreaded knock on the door at 4 in the morning that’s every parent’s nightmare.”
He says people in the bar and liquor business have been important backers, among them Jeff Thomas, a co-owner of Charlie’s Bar and Restaurant in Somers Point and longtime HERO board member. Thomas’ family bar was one of the first to join the cause, and he’s seen public awareness grow over the years. “More people are doing it, and it’s great to see that,” he said, adding that Charlie’s also posts HERO promotional material for customers to see. “We’re happy to be able to give them free soft drinks, and we’ll continue doing it.”
“John’s Law” in New Jersey, enacted in 2001, was another offshoot of the campaign. Under the law, anyone who comes to pick up an arrested DWI suspect can be liable if the suspect goes on to drive while still intoxicated. The law also allows police to impound the suspect’s vehicle for 12 hours after the arrest.
Elliott adds that the campaign typically gets some of its most useful cooperation from the licensed-beverage association in most new area where it expands.
“We have grown because of the support we’ve gotten from businesses,” Elliott says.
Businesses and law-enforcement officials have also helped the campaign spread into six more states — one of the latest partners to join was Churchill Downs, the famed racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby each May.
Elliott met Rodney Brewer, Kentucky’s State Police commissioner, through Col. Rick Fuentes, New Jersey’s State Police superintendent — another supporter — at a police chiefs convention. Brewer “said we have to do this in Kentucky, and we have,” Elliott said, adding that the campaign has recruited hundreds of bars and other backers there.
The campaign is also active in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and to the north, the effort has spread as far as Massachusetts, where the NFL’s New England Patriots are another partner. Closer to home, the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants and their NFL stadiums have joined too.
Wawa has made another huge contribution — just by collecting small change. Elliott says that over 10 years, the convenience store chain has put HERO Campaign collection boxes on its checkout counters around New Jersey and taken in almost $750,000 in coins to support the designated-driver message.
But the HERO Campaign has also made progress with its message on college campuses, including Stockton University in Galloway Township. For the last six years, that effort has included getting students to nominate a “HERO of the Year,” and Stockton’s winner this year was Haley Matsinger, of North Cape May.
The campaign honored her by putting her picture on billboards on local highways; she also joined the Elliott family at Ocean City’s Night in Venice, where the HERO Campaign spread its message to the crowds who poured into town last weekend to watch or join the annual boat parade.
“We really are basically a marketing campaign to get people to change their behavior and adopt the designated driver as the new normal,” says Bill Elliott, who made his name locally in the public-relations business, and is now the retired executive director of the Shore Medical Center Foundation. “Our ultimate goal is to have the use of designated drivers be as automatic as wearing a seat belt.”
Martin DeAngelis, Staff Writer
Source: Press of Atlantic City