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September 1999

Showing Teens
They Can Save
Their Own Lives

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By Wendy Parker

Injury is the leading cause of death among youth. How do you convince teens, who think they’re invincible, to play it safer? HEROES makes them see risks differently.

A high school student walks down the hall and sees a poster about safety, and doesn’t read it. Another student hears an announcement about an injury prevention lecture. You can already predict the bored look.

Traditional safety messages are didactic, condescending and dull. They try to scare kids into being safe by using negative language and frightening images. When threatened with consequences, kids don’t respond.

HEROES, a program developed by Dr. Robert Conn of SMARTRISK, is distinctly different from the usual "do not" safety dictums. It aims to give the power of choice and the power of personal responsibility back to youth.

April Bond, a high school graduate and two-time student presenter, attributes the success of HEROES to the emphasis on choice. "They’re not saying don’t take risks. It’s not just another lecture. The message is, do it for yourself." HEROES had a powerful impact on April, who recognized the fact that teens think they’re invincible and that is dangerous. "The program shows everyone that they’re not invincible, that things can happen, but they have a choice. HEROES makes them more aware of those choices."

A multi-image sound show, HEROES contrasts fast-paced images of crash scenes and quadriplegics with healthy, carefree teens enjoying their lives. It also features a live presentation given by a young injury survivor, who speaks candidly about the choices made with respect to risk and injury.

The show illustrates that taking smart risks is cool because it gives back the power of choice to the teenager. There are no rules. Instead, HEROES simply shows teens that they have the power to save a life – their own. They’re given five tools. Buckle Up. Drive Sober. Look First. Wear the Gear. And Get Trained.

The program is based on a pilot project developed by the University of Alberta Hospitals. Robert Conn revamped and renamed it HEROES.

Seven years ago, Conn was working as a pediatric heart surgeon removing hearts from fatally injured people for transplant. Most of the donors were very young. Babies, toddlers, children and teens lay dead on his surgical table. The medical charts read "cause of death – accident."

Conn thought the word "accident" made no sense. How could a car crash that killed a two-year-old boy be called an accident when he was not harnessed in a car seat? Why would police call a crash that killed a 15-year-old girl "accidental" when a buckled seatbelt could have saved her life?

These deaths were caused by predictable and preventable events. They were caused by the choices people made when faced with risk. Conn thought something could be done to show Canadians how to make the right choices when faced with risk. Conn left his medical career to set up SMARTRISK, a national injury prevention non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the rate of injury and injury-related deaths.

HEROES is designed to galvanize the support of the community, so that the messages reach a variety of audiences. From the initial booking to final presentation, public health workers, community activists, educators, political leaders, parents, and clubs and associations often work for several months on organization and promotion.

Local co-ordinators receive a "How to Host HEROES Guide" and teachers are given a resource guide illustrating different ways in which the key messages can be incorporated into classes. Ten local student volunteers are selected to become members of the stage crew before the technical team rolls into town. Six students help the technical team set up the show, and the other four take an active role in delivering the program to their peers.

Often, HEROES is a catalyst for developing injury prevention coalitions and has sparked some communities to hold wide-ranging HEROES Festivals. Organized around HEROES shows, festivals draw the support of an entire community through trade shows, speakers, events and displays.

So far, 10 communities across Canada have hosted HEROES Festivals. In Kelowna, B.C. SMARTRISK helped organize a broad-based coalition with support from the police and fire departments as well as from "risk-taking" groups like snowmobilers and motorcyclists. Displays were set up focusing on how to "risk it right", and the mayor declared those days Injury Prevention Week. The HEROES Festival became the best-attended event in the city’s history.

More than 650,000 teens nation-wide have seen the award-winning show, and some 14,000 students have participated in the set-up and delivery of the shows. Traditionally a difficult group to reach with respect to safety, youth have responded positively to the show’s messages by talking about how they’ll think differently about the risks in their own lives.

Every year, over two million Canadians are injured. Every hour, one Canadian dies from an injury. The rate of injury in Canada has reached epidemic proportions, costing $8.7 billion each year in health costs.

Death by injury is the # 1 killer of Canadian youth.

If you would like HEROES to visit your community, please contact HEROES co-ordinator Kim Diamond at (416) 463-9878 or fax (416) 463-0137.

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