By Starrla Cray
DASSEL-COKATO, MN The numbing shock and intense pain of losing a loved one are feelings Dassel-Cokato High School assistant track coach Patty Sterner knows only too well.
Three years ago, her stepdaughter, Amanda Jax of Mayer, died from alcohol poisoning while celebrating her 21st birthday.
“It just can’t happen again,” Sterner said. “Kids aren’t aware of how easily it could be them and no one’s saying anything.”
Through that heartbreaking experience, Sterner has developed a passion for alerting others to the dangers of binge drinking and other life-threatening activities.
It was for this reason that she received nationwide recognition as the first Commissioner’s Play Healthy Award winner.
The award was launched this year by nonprofit organization Drugfree.org (formerly known as the Partnership for a Drug-Free America), in conjunction with Major League Baseball (MLB) Charities, to celebrate a youth coach who embodies the spirit of teamwork and healthy, drug-free competition.
Laura Lindeman, drug-free grant coordinator for Kandiyohi County Public Health, saw the contest on the Drugfree.org website a few months ago, and nominated Sterner right away.
“Patty is a really good asset,” Lindeman said, explaining that alcohol and drug abuse prevention work best when students hear it from someone they know and trust.
Lindeman got to know Sterner while working at Meeker County Public Health.
“Patty forms a personal relationship with those she works with, lives with, and plays with. She truly cares about people, and that is very apparent within minutes of meeting her,” Lindeman wrote in her nomination essay.
Since her step-daughter’s death, Sterner has been sharing her story with local classrooms, driver’s education courses, and other community groups.
“I’ll talk to anyone who will listen,” she said.
People are exposed to several “pro-alcohol” messages each day, and someone needs to balance that out by explaining the risks, according to Sterner.
“TV shows and song lyrics glamorize drinking, but it’s not so glamorous,” she said.
Many parents are not aware of how serious alcohol problems can be, she added.
Sterner and her family were worried about Jax’s drinking and partying, but their concerns were more focused on the impact on grades and family time, the possibility of getting assaulted, and other related issues.
“We really had no idea what we were dealing with,” she said, adding that although Jax had made mistakes, she was a loving person who cared deeply for her family.
“We thought she would become a nurse, helping others,” Sterner said. Jax had been accepted into the nursing program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and she had a bright future ahead of her.
Sterner said that although Jax didn’t have the chance to become a nurse, she hopes her death will help save other people from making similar mistakes.
“I don’t want Amanda to have died in vain,” Sterner said.
Call for help
The night Jax died, she had been vomiting from drinking. Her friends put her to bed, assuming that she would be fine the next morning.
“If someone passes out from drinking, do not put them to bed to sleep it off,” Sterner said.
A similar situation happened in 2004 to an 18-year-old named Lynn Gordon Bailey, Jr. (aka Gordie). He was found dead at the Chi Psi Fraternity house at the University of Colorado, after his fraternity encouraged him to drink excessively as part of an initiation rite. Friends left him to “sleep it off,” and no one called for help.
In a prevention effort, Gordie’s family created “HAZE,” a documentary that presents the issue of alcohol misuse and hazing on college campuses. To learn more, go to www.gordie.org.
Another family, whose daughter Shelby Allen died of alcohol poisoning in 2008, created an alcohol poisoning education foundation in her memory. Her website, www.shelbysrules.com, shares a powerful message of what to do and what not do when a friend has had too much to drink.
Sterner said she wishes it didn’t take a death to get people to pay attention to careless drinking hazards, but she is hopeful that her personal story will touch the lives of others.
“If it will make people listen, I can do this for Amanda and her siblings,” she said.
As the Commissioner’s Play Healthy Award winner, Sterner, accompanied by her husband, Ken, will be in New York City Thursday, Dec. 9 for the Drugfree.org annual gala.
Sterner will also receive a $1,000 sporting goods gift card, and a prominent spot on the Drugfree.org website.
“Hopefully, this will encourage more people to become active in the community,” Sterner said. “It’s not just my message.”