Miguel Rivera did not retain a lot of what was taught at the “Every 15 Minutes” event that he attended as a senior at Norwalk High School in 2009, but when he returned two years later he was far-better prepared.
Such events takes place each year at high schools across the country. They feature gruesome, yet staged car accidents strewn with “injured” and “dead” students, and such reality checks as a Grim Reaper removing a student from a classroom every 15 minutes to die, corresponding to the frequency of teenage death in the U.S. due to drunk driving.
Rivera, now a sociology and business administration double major at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) and founder of the non-profit Dream Big Project (DBP), went back to his former high school in 2011 for the same event. However, this time he was there as a guest speaker—to take center stage in his wheelchair and visually show the dangers of driving intoxicated and describe to the teenage audience how he lost the ability to walk when his car rolled over and over on the freeway before coming to rest upside-down in a ditch.
Rivera had been a bit reluctant to celebrate that Friday night. Recently graduated from Norwalk High and looking forward to traveling north the following Monday to start his college career at UC Santa Barbara, he really wanted to head home. A co-worker convinced him to attend someone’s 21st birthday party, where he stayed after the festivities had ended to drink more and celebrate a while longer before driving home.
“My friend tried to prevent me from getting in the car, but I ended up on the freeway driving home. About a mile or two down I fell asleep at the wheel and I crashed into a side rail,” said Rivera. “I remember firefighters asking ‘Are you alright? How do you feel?’ I told them I can’t feel my legs. The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital, then looking around and seeing my mom and dad in tears. The doctor then came in and told me ‘Sorry Miguel, you will never be able to walk again.’”
Dream Big Project
Telling the details of that story to students at his former high school revitalized him after two years of depression and fear about what his future as a quadriplegic might be.
He wanted to continue reaching out to youth in that way, which he now does through the Dream Big Project. With the help of close friends and dedicated volunteers, Rivera launched the organization in 2014 with a mission of educating inner-city youth around the CSUDH service area about the dangers of drinking and driving, and the importance of education in building a “future to be proud of.”
“When I speak to students at their schools I really push the concept of dreaming big and pushing yourself hard, no matter who you are. I want them to know there are people out there trying to help them, and in return, that they might help somebody else,” said Rivera, who now coaches football at Norwalk High School. “When they know there is someone out there to help who has gone through some of the things they may have gone through, they are more likely to listen and get engaged.”
In addition to spreading awareness of the dangers of drunk driving, the Dream Big Project aims to promote the power of giving back and making a difference. One of the organization’s signature projects is its annual backpack drive and giveaway, which are filled with school supplies and distributed in inner-city elementary and high schools. At last year’s giveaway, they handed out more than 300 backpacks to students at Sanchez Elementary School in Norwalk.
“If we can reach just one, or two, or three kids or teenagers each time, then we feel we’re doing good work,” said Rivera. “It’s not so much about giving away tangible items and products—we really want them to see the value and the importance of trying to help other people, and interacting with others to empower each other.”
José Cortez, a representative of DBP who has been with the organization since its launch, knows how it feels to be a disadvantaged youth having gone though “rough times” as a kid, sometimes living in cars or in hotel rooms on occasion.
“It can be tough for many of these kids. I remember being at the Sanchez Elementary School event. We had about 40 backpacks left over. When I was loading them up, this girl asked if her sister could have one, too. She said her sister thinks the backpacks are ‘awesome,’” he said. “When I gave it to her she was beyond excited. She said ‘Oh my God, I have a backpack.’ I was like, ‘Heck yeah, you sure do.’ That’s why we do this, because happiness and knowledge look good together.”
Along with giving away backpacks, DBP hosts events every other month to distribute essential goods to the poor. In January 2016, the group organized a diaper drive that brought in more than 500 diapers, which they donated with other goods during the grand opening of Puerta Hermosa in Manaedero, Mexico, which assists migrant, orphaned, and disabled children, as well as indigenous families in the area. They also organized a food giveaway in Los Angeles’ “Skid Row” area, and recently worked with the organization Youth Hope Summit to distribute donated shoes to children.
Rivera transferred to CSUDH in fall 2014. During his first year, he focused on his studies and admitted he wasn’t too active on campus, but is now beginning to spend more time outside the classroom and interacting more with students.
“Now I not only come to learn, but also take advantage of everything that is available to me at Cal State Dominguez Hills,” said Rivera, who would also like develop a scholarship program through DBP in the future offering $500 to $1,000 grants to high school seniors who want to pursue higher education. “I want to eventually enter a graduate program. I’m considering becoming a high school counselor someday.”