Covering the Waterfront On Teen Advocacy
SADD Chief Sees Epidemic in Underage Drinking, Drug Abuse
HIS CAREER ARC ESSENTIALLY STARTED AT SUSQUEHANNA. “Coming to Susquehanna and Selinsgrove was a very transformative experience for me,” says Wallace, a native of Westfield, N.J., who moved with his family to Palm Beach County, Fla., as a teenager. Wanting to succeed on Madison Avenue, he majored in communications while taking business courses and minoring in psychology.
“It sounds trite, but for some reason, as an 18-year-old freshman, I immediately sensed a friction between the community and the college,” he says, “and I felt it was important not to be just another college kid perceived by the community to be a problem, but someone who had made a contribution.”
Already a summer camp counselor, the sprinter on Susquehanna’s swim team volunteered to coach a Selinsgrove youth swim team. He also taught lifeguarding and swimming classes, did peer counseling at Selinsgrove High School and volunteered for a town committee.
“My friends all thought I was nuts,” he recalls. “I’d walk down Market Street with them and a good portion of the townspeople would know me and say hello. My friends joked, ‘Are you running for something?’”
But Wallace gained a lot. “I remember standing in the shallow end of the pool holding a burly man, helping him to float. I thought, ‘This is kind of cool; I’m teaching this guy how to swim.’”
That Susquehanna experience is one reason he champions community service—particularly youth mentoring—for college students. Wallace believes it gives college students much greater social awareness and the satisfaction that comes with giving something back to the local community. It also might influence the college students’ own behavior.
“In our Teens Today research, one primary reason young people give for not choosing to use alcohol or other drugs is that they have a younger sibling for whom they are a role model.” Research Wallace has reviewed also indicates youths who are mentored perform better in school and have better relationships with their parents.
After he graduated in 1981, Wallace rejected a full scholarship and counseling job as part of a master’s program in psychology and counseling at Bucknell University. Instead he worked at a Bloomingdale’s in Short Hills, N.J., hoping that Madison Avenue eventually would beckon. But then he successfully applied for a job as a counselor on a locked adolescent psychiatric ward at Fair Oaks Hospital in Summit, near his original hometown. “It was both very rewarding and difficult,” he recalls. “But I received very positive feedback from the clinical staff for being able to connect with the kids and have them feel comfortable with me.”
Inspired, Wallace entered the two-year Bucknell program the following fall. During his first year, he lived at Susquehanna as an assistant to the director of residence life in charge of the Project House System, in which small groups of students commit to shared community service projects while living together in university-owned housing.
After earning his master’s degree, Wallace became a school psychologist for a year each in Palm Beach County and Millis, Mass. Millis is where he first became involved in what was then called Students Against Driving Drunk. It had been formed in 1981 in nearby Wayland, Mass., following the alcohol-related auto fatalities of two student athletes. Intrigued, Wallace spent 18 months during 1986 and 1987 crisscrossing the country speaking to middle school and high school students as a national representative, and then the director of communications and public relations, for SADD. “Even back then, I was talking about the important role that parents can play in guiding their children toward healthy and safe choices,” he says. “Respectful parent-child communication is really the theme of my book.”
After a nine-year hiatus, Wallace returned to SADD as a board member and in 1997, as its chairman and CEO, oversaw the organization’s student-initiated evolution from Students Against Driving Drunk to its broader mission as Students Against Destructive Decisions. The organization now has more than 10,000 chapters, primarily in middle schools and high schools, as well as some colleges, and has an estimated 350,000 active student members.