Newsmakers 2013: Hoeflinger family channels pain into activismWritten by Brandi Barhite | Community Ombudsman | firstname.lastname@example.org
This time last year, Brian Hoeflinger was entering the final half of his senior year at Ottawa Hills High School. He had just celebrated his 18th birthday Dec. 28.
The aspiring dentist was considering colleges, among them the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With a 32 on the ACT and a 4.5 GPA, the choices were seemingly endless.
It was going to be a good year for Brian, a proud year for his family.
Most families don’t enter a New Year thinking this is the year their healthy, smart and otherwise responsible teenager will die. Brian celebrated the New Year not knowing he had one month left to live.
On the night of Feb. 1, Brian drank at a party, drove and crashed into a tree. Just like that, it was over. He would not graduate. He would not turn 19. He would not go to Chapel Hill. The acceptance letter came two days after his death.
“It is horrible. You want them back so much and you can’t get them back. It is on my mind constantly. It is on [my wife] Cindy’s mind constantly,” said his father, Brian Hoeflinger, on Dec. 23. “It is so senseless. It sickens me to see all that potential and to have it wasted on alcohol.”
But the Hoeflingers would not just bury their son and mourn. They would bury their son, mourn and try to make a difference for Brian, their three other children and the rest of the community. His dad would be the spokesman. The resulting crusade, Brian Matters, began almost immediately after his death.
“We wanted to get it out in the open and not be ashamed of it,” Hoeflinger said.
Brian was a good boy — but even good boys make mistakes. They refused to be ashamed of how their son died.
“Parents need to talk about it; they need to start a line of conversation,” Hoeflinger said in one of the many interviews he has done since his son died. “Millions of parents don’t think of talking about it because they don’t think their kids are doing it.”
In 2011, the results from a local health assessment mirrored national trends. The survey indicated that 54 percent of Lucas County youth in grades seven through 12 had consumed at least one drink in their life. Thirty-seven percent of those seventh- through 12th-graders who drank took their first drink at 12 years old or younger.
The survey also revealed that more than half of the seventh- through 12th-graders who reported drinking in the past 30 days participated in binge drinking, while 6 percent of all youth drivers had driven in the past month after they had been drinking.
The Hoeflingers began speaking to local high schools, encouraging them to take Brian’s pledge to not drink. His dad is convinced Brian would have done it differently if he had had a second chance.
Initially, “Brian dying was a huge eye-opener,” his friend Tyler Grandsko said for a story about the prevalence of underage drinking. But it didn’t last long. Within two weeks, some teens had gone back to their old ways.
Within two weeks, some teens had gone back to their old ways. Some students even removed their pledges from the wall, according to a sophomore at Ottawa Hills who didn’t want his name used.
The teen said many of his friends drink, which puts him in a tough spot because he doesn’t want to lose all of his friends. Although it is mostly a weekend thing, people will even leave for lunch to drink.
This is why the Hoeflingers are not stopping.
“It is hard to accept his life is over for something so nonsensical,” Hoeflinger said.
In August, the clerk who sold Brian’s friend the liquor was indicted and shortly after Foxx Liquor Store lost its liquor license. The Hoeflingers said they saw the clerk, Nicholas Thompson, at the mall while Christmas shopping.
“We wondered how he would feel if he couldn’t walk around with his daughter,” he said.
The crusade will continue. Hoeflinger’s book, “The Night He Died: The Harsh Reality of Teenage Drinking,” will be available starting in mid-January through Amazon and Kindle. The book outlines the realities of teenage drinking and how a neurosurgeon and a father’s personal journey turned tragedy into hope.
“I woke up one night and I had an idea for a book. I got on my iPhone and wrote the title of each chapter,” he said.
The Hoeflingers are also finalizing an appearance for a national television show. Getting the message out nationally is important because the incidents are only reported locally.
“They don’t see it as a problem and they think it is isolated,” Hoeflinger said.
The couple also wants to change the social host law. Currently, you have to know that underage kids are drinking in your home to be liable; however, “if you act ignorant, you are off the hook,” Hoeflinger said.
That isn’t right.
“Parents have to take a little more responsibility instead of just saying, ‘I don’t know.’ If you have more potential to go to jail, you will go down and check on the kids.”
The Hoeflingers want to continue to speak about Brian’s death, as well as plan a citywide 5K for area youth. They have given 15 speeches.
“We are happy to speak at any high school or any organization. We don’t solicit talks, we are always asked.”
While starting Brian Matters has given them a purpose, the family’s suffering is still raw. The first Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthday without Brian were almost unbearable.
They didn’t put the bulbs on the tree this year. Only recently did they build the ice skating rink in the backyard at the urging of son Kevin. Hoeflinger said he has put off hanging the stockings because he will have to put up Brian’s.
“Everything first is hard. Once you do it, it will make it OK and will make it easier for next year.”
For Brian’s birthday, his mom hosted a bowling party, a sport that Brian had started to like before he died. She posted this on Facebook:
“Come out and help celebrate the life of Brian Nicholas Hoeflinger by doing something he liked to do — bowling! Stop by, bowl a game or two, and share a laugh and a story! We would love to see his friends, your families and anyone else who would like to come! Brian would want us to come together and celebrate.
Hoeflinger said the day will be bittersweet, but remembering Brian is how they display their love for him. They will not stop speaking about their son.
“There is no reason to not take a tragedy and turn it into something good,” he said. “The worst thing would have been to put him in the grave and mourn him and not talk about it again.”