She draws on hardship to counsel others Anne Arundel woman wins recognition for anti-drug, alcohol work

December 07, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Heather Metzger always knew her father wouldn't die an old man. He drank too much, did too many drugs, drove too often under the influence.

But Metzger, who is from Millersville in Anne Arundel County, was shocked when her father died Oct. 16, 1994, after driving drunk and high on drugs on the way home from a bar in Baltimore County. Metzger was 17. Her two brothers, Justin and Jordan, were 13 and 10.

Metzger, now 21 and a junior at the University of Maryland,

College Park could have let grief consume her. Instead, soon after her father's death, she designed a program for younger children called "Drug Free Me" and began to tell her story in schools. She became involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Howard County, adding hours of work to a packed school schedule.

Her volunteer achievements are so prodigious, Metzger recently won state and national recognition for them. Her biggest accomplishment, perhaps, is not turning out like her father, a fate of many children of alcoholics.

"It would seem normal, almost expected, for a young person who has lived through what she has to go in the wrong direction," said her mother, Bobbie Metzger, a physical therapist assistant. " Heather has chosen to use her life experiences to prevent other adolescents from making the wrong choices."

Heather Metzger doesn't have many good memories of her father. She remembers the time he stole money from her piggy bank to buy drugs, the time he stood her up on her 13th birthday, the times he threw parties and she had to beg him to turn the music down so she could sleep.

She remembers the track marks on his arms from shooting heroin, the chronic smell of alcohol on his breath, the promises he made and never kept.

"I've never felt like a kid," she said. "When I was a child, I felt like an adult trapped in a child's body."

Metzger tells these stories without flinching, without the threat of tears. But to this day, whenever she visits her father's grave in Baltimore, she said she can't keep from crying. Despite all the pain, she loved her father. At UM, Metzger eschews the freedom and leisure time that many 21-year-olds take for granted. When she is not busy with schoolwork -- she is studying to become a speech and language pathologist and one day wants to work with disabled and hearing-impaired children -- she spends most of her time working as a resident adviser to 38 freshmen and sophomores and volunteering for MADD.

She has never so much as tasted wine or beer, she said: "The most alcohol I think I've had is from Vicks Formula 44." She never goes to fraternity parties or bars. This year, she was a runner-up for the Miss Maryland crown. Though she could easily spend her time dating, she said her favorite activity Friday night is sitting in her room, practicing the harp -- which she took up recently -- or doing volunteer work.

She jokingly refers to herself as a "fuddy-duddy."

In the year or so since she joined MADD, Metzger has written to legislators requesting that they strengthen drunken-driving laws, designed a Web site addressing drunken driving, talked with repeat drunken-driving offenders, counseled peers about drinking and organized speeches.

In April, she organized a campaign to insert drunken-driving statistics into pockets of rental tuxedos. She has agreed to serve as the state chairwoman of MADD's National Youth Summit in Washington in 2000 and is also MADD's Youth Power Camp coordinator for summer 1999, which requires a yearlong commitment to organize a leadership training camp for Maryland teen-agers. She serves on victim-impact panels, sharing her story with people who have been convicted of drunken driving.

Metzger was always a hard worker, the type loved by teachers and resented by classmates: "I was always considered the goodie-goodie, the nerd, the teacher's pet," she said. For her -- most of the time -- that was better than partying and being like her popular and handsome father, who couldn't hold a job.

Metzger attributes her work ethic to her family, God and a desire to never be like her father, who was absent most of her youth. Metzger's parents separated when she was 7, she said, and later divorced.

The night of the accident that took his life at age 38, John Metzger ran a stop sign and collided with a minivan. The other driver was injured, but not seriously. Metzger was unconscious for a day and a half before being declared brain dead and taken off life support, Heather Metzger said.

Soon after her father died, she said, she went to a library to read about alcoholism. She was appalled to learn that it can be genetic.

The next day, she called area schools and offered her services. Last fall, after three years of giving talks in schools, Metzger began to volunteer for MADD.

Her volunteer efforts with MADD and other groups attracted attention.

This fall, she won the Howard County "Service to Youth" $H Volunteer of the Year Award. Last month, she won a regional contest sponsored by Betty Crocker; $1,000 will be given to the state chapter of MADD in her honor. Also last month, the Heart of America Foundation, a Washington-based group that promotes voluntarism, asked her to be one of 15 ambassadors nationwide.

Metzger, who avoided her father as a teen-ager but forgave him on his deathbed, said she holds no bitterness toward him.

"There's this saying: 'Hardship can either make you a better person or a bitter person,' " she said. "I think it made me a better person."

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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