Telling Joey's stories so students don't live it

When Laguna Beach resident Erica Upshaw was rear-ended on South Coast Highway at Nyes Place in a seven-car pileup Sept. 22, she woke up in the hospital saying "Joey."

She was lucky to be alive and calling out her dead brother's name after a drunk driver, who died days later at the hospital, hit her Mini Cooper at 50 mph.

The driver of the car, Lee Henry Vuille, 73, was believed at first to be suffering from a diabetic condition, but later tests revealed his blood alcohol level to be higher than the legal limit, according to Laguna Beach police Lt. Jason Kravetz.

Unrelated to the Laguna crash, Joey Upshaw died in 2000 after a drinking and drug binge during a fraternity house party at The Ohio State University.

Since 2006, Erica has devoted her life to speaking to students about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, and how friends can save each other.

Erica said that she and Joey, her older brother and best friend, both liked to party. Both were good students and popular at school, each joining a sorority or fraternity. They grew up in Dayton, Ohio.

Joey was studying civil engineering and known for being a very funny drunk, she said.

"He took GHB [known as a date rape drug] after a long night of drinking, and he died that night," Erica said. "His fraternity brothers put him to bed to sleep it off, and he never woke up. Two hours after he took the drug they called for help.

"When his lips turned blue they were afraid of getting into trouble. They were drunk and scared. Joey was to blame, too. It was a collective disaster. They didn't act in time."

Six years later, at administrators' request, the formerly shy student used the voice she found while giving her brother's eulogy to sway Ohio State students from the hard partying and binge drinking that was taking a toll there.

In the intervening years, she had become a successful photographer's representative, living in places like Chicago and New York, where she met her husband, Darren Austin. But she felt something was missing.

"I knew I had to do something," she said.

When Ohio State beckoned, she created the presentation "Keep Friendship Alive," a subtle reference to the need for inebriated students to act to save each other from drug and alcohol overdose. The presentation — with an emphasis on "partying smart" — worked, and she started receiving invitations to speak at schools all over the country.

She quit her photography career and devoted herself to the cause full time. She just embarked on a two-week, 10-campus tour, following up on a 30-campus trip in the fall semester, and recently gave a presentation at UC Irvine. She has addressed some 100,000 students so far.

Colleges and universities are not the only ones clamoring for her speaking skills: She spoke to 7,000 Ohio high school students during spring 2011 graduation.

"After that, a kid wrote back to me that he is no longer dealing drugs and has decided to go to college," she said. "That's confirmation from above that I'm on the right track."

Now she is expanding her goals.

"I want to try to change the culture of drinking and drug abuse in the U.S.," she said.

She speaks from experience and doesn't judge young people for their behavior, she said.

"The first time I got drunk was in seventh grade," she said. "But I got straight As and played sports." She said her drinking never became a major issue in her family.

"I look back and know I've made mistakes," she said.

Now, she wants to start talking to kids in sixth grade "before they engage in risky behaviors."

But she knows that statistics on drug use are getting even more grim.

Drug deaths now exceed deaths by traffic accidents in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is largely due to the explosion in the abuse of prescription drugs, which teens get in their parents' medicine cabinets or on the street.

"Every day, 2,500 teens use prescription drugs to get high," she said. "There has been a huge jump in hospitalizations. People are dying. Parents don't know how to talk to kids about drugs and alcohol. My mom didn't know what Joey and I were doing."

Although she speaks candidly about her brother with barely a trace of emotion, one thing still haunts her: what happened to him could have so easily happened to her.

It was years after the tragedy, while living in New York, that she realized that she, too, had a problem with alcohol.

"Somebody confronted me about my drinking, and I really thought about what had happened to Joey. Then Ohio State called and it was a synchronistic moment. I realized I was doing dangerous things."

Telling Joey's story helped her to control her drug and alcohol use. She stopped using recreational drugs and now drinks only occasionally. And she's looking for other people to join her new nonprofit venture and spread the message to more and younger people.

"I want to teach kids to pursue their passions instead of alcohol and drugs, to create massive change," she said.

For more information, visit http://www.keepfriendshipalive.org.

cindy.frazier@latimes.com

Twitter: @CindyFrazier1

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