Sixteen years ago, Alexa Roney lost her 16-year-old son Chad to a drunk driver, and even today, she continues to find solace helping stamp out DUIs in Jackson County and beyond.
As the coordinator for the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Roney oversees many community-action programs, including the donation of equipment to city and county officials along the coast.
On Monday, Roney presented Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd with two breathalyzer machines and 250 breathing tubes, which made a total of four such field sobriety devices the sheriff's department has received from MADD in the last five years.
According to Byrd, the breathalyzers are much needed, and will immediately be used in county patrols and roadblocks to determine the blood alcohol level of drivers suspected of driving while intoxicated.
State law defines intoxication as a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent for any driver 21 or older. For younger drivers, the legal limit is 0.02 percent.
"This is something that is very, very helpful to our patrol officers in the field," Byrd said, looking over the small digital device, which measures alcohol levels when suspects breathe into the plastic tube connected to it.
"This will help save lives, and that's what it's all about," he said.
In October, the sheriff's department was awarded a $110,000 DUI grant by the Justice Department, for use in funding driver checkpoints across the county. Byrd explained the breathalyzers are employed at those roadblocks, and have contributed to 186 arrests for driving under the influence since October.
"We're trying to make their job a little easier, so they can go out and get the people that have been drinking and driving," Roney said. "(The breathalyzers) help make our streets safe."
Roney said the breathalyzer donations are just one facet of MADD's community outreach. On Tuesday, she will present the Gautier City Council with two pairs of Fatal Vision "impairment goggles," which simulate what it looks and feels like to have a blood alcohol level of 0.06 percent. The goggles will be used to educate Gautier students on the dangers of drinking too much.
Over the last several years, Roney has headed the Victim's Impact Panel, a program that she said works through the local court system to educate first-time DUI offenders on the human costs of drunk driving.
"The defendants come and listen to people like me, who have lost someone," Roney said. "They learn that, if they stay on the path they're on, they might end up the ones being talked about," because they killed or were killed. She said the panel has featured speakers who have actually killed others while drunk, sometimes not even realizing they hit someone.
The Victim's Impact Panel convenes every other month at the Jackson County Courthouse and has even inspired similar programs to the east in Mobile County. Roney said she speaks in Mobile quarterly in conjunction with the city's Underage Drinking Task Force. She also operates a booth at local health fairs, such as the yearly event at the Chevron Refinery and the fair at Gautier Middle School this past April.
"When I joined MADD, it was to go out and educate people," she said. "We've got to do something to make people understand not to (drive drunk)."
Roney said it's especially important that parents know where their children have been and what they are doing.
As for her late son, Roney said she believes Chad would be right beside her had he not been taken so early. As she continues to cope with the fact that he can't, she said her work with MADD helps fill the void.
"I had to make something good come out of it," Roney said. "And it's my therapy, it helps me get through.
"Chad was a good kid. I know this is what he'd want me to do, and if he was alive, he'd be right here helping me do it."