Preventing teenagers from texting while driving – and spreading the word about those dangers in the hopes of saving lives, three San Benito High School students, Melony Baltazar, April Guerrero and Randy Merida, set their sights on raising awareness on this pressing issue. In doing so, they walked away with a coveted gold medal award at the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, beating out schools from Maryland and Georgia.

According to teen driver cell phone statistics, 11 teens die every day as a result of texting while driving. A poll conducted by AAA indicates that 94 percent of teen drivers acknowledge the dangers of texting and driving, but 35 percent admit to doing it anyway. Statistics indicate that 21 percent of teenage drivers having been involved in fatal accidents were distracted by their cell phones.

The SkillsUSA Club is always looking for projects that can benefit the community and raise awareness on certain issues, their instructor Joel Rodriguez explained.

“Every year, we change themes. This year, we focused on the Teen Challenge 365, teaming up with Bert Ogden Toyota and KSBG staff,” Rodriguez said, adding that this year’s national winners went above and beyond by promoting the project via School Tube and recruiting the help of KSBG staff, including Alondra Cardoza, a former co-op student and national contest competitor. They also partnered with Adrian Burone of Bert Ogden Toyota for assistance.

Part of their presentation included the use of an iPad where participants performed a driving simulation while texting. Participants soon learned the effects of multi-tasking. The trio also provided pledge cards that stated they would pledge not to drive while being distracted, such as with texting.

The students, enrolled in the program via the Career Technical Education classes, featured their presentation before judges and the public at the national competition. Prior to that, they presented their project at community events, including the local Kayak Regatta races.

Rodriguez is grateful that the SkillsUSA Arts and Communication Career Pathways Showcase National Champions worked closely together as a team, dedicating the time necessary to bring home the win after competing against 15 other schools from throughout the United States.

Rodriguez is extremely proud of their accomplishments.

“They got exactly what they deserved. They earned it! They took the project and ran with it, taking advantage of every moment to practice and prepare,” Rodriguez said. “Even towards the end, the students continued perfecting their presentation, practicing while en route to the conference.”

For Merida, his senior year at San Benito High School is sure to become a memorable one. Not only did he gain valuable experience as a co-op student, he also had the chance to travel.

Merida finished his senior year on a high note and is grateful for the opportunities. “I felt that it (winning gold at nationals) was the best way to close my senior year,” he said.

Speaking highly of his instructor and his guidance throughout the duration of the project, Merida recalls how Rodriguez believed in their abilities to capture the national win.

“He led us to believe that if we followed the rubric’s four components, we would win. We followed it, and our project was the best!” Merida said. “We all put in the same amount of work, practice and dedication to achieve these results.”

The students also had a chance to meet celebrities, including former professional boxing champion Evander Holyfield as well as stars from local TV shows such as conference keynote speaker Nick Tokman, who has been on the Emmy award-winning “Deadliest Catch” for the past four seasons, and Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs.