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Birch, Glynn R.

Birch, Glynn R.

195(?)—

Activist

In 2005, Glynn R. Birch became the first father and first African American to serve as president of the national advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving. His involvement in MADD, as the organization is commonly known, dates back to the death of his toddler son in 1988; from that point, he became deeply committed to the group's focus to end the deadly combination of driving while impaired. The presidency of MADD came with a high media profile for Birch, and he began appearing regularly on television news segments devoted to the issue. For his efforts, he received positive feedback, he told a writer for Ebony, "especially in the Black and Hispanic communities. Fathers hurt just as much as mothers do. We are just not allowed to show it."

Born in the late 1950s, Birch was a married father of three living in the Orlando, Florida, area and working as a restaurant manager when the tragedy that shaped his adult life and ended his marriage occurred. In May of 1988, his 21-month-old son Courtney was being baby-sat at his grandmother's house when he ran after his two older cousins and the music of an ice cream truck coming down the street. A car driven by a repeat drunk-driving offender at 70 miles per hour struck Courtney when he stepped into the street, and dragged him 150 feet before it stopped. The driver's blood-alcohol level was 0.26—in many U.S. states 0.08 is considered the blood-alcohol limit to be deemed too impaired to operate a vehicle. The driver also had three previous convictions for driving under the influence, or DUI. Moreover, the man's license had even been revoked, but that had not stopped him from operating a vehicle.

The attorney who represented Birch's family suggested that they contact the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Founded in 1980 by Candy Lightner of Sacramento, California, whose 13-year-old daughter was fatally struck by a car driven by a drunk driver, the organization is dedicated to helping families of those killed by alcohol-impaired drivers at the local level, and to fighting for stricter laws and enforcement on drunk driving at the state and federal level. Birch's wife was in such terrible shape that he had to go to the first meeting by himself. "I was surprised," he told a writer for Ebony. "I had expected to see angry mothers with signs. There were two women there who had also lost children, and they helped me. They showed me compassion, and it was life-saving."

Birch was assigned a victim advocate, who helped him write a victim impact statement that was read in court when the driver who killed his son was sentenced. The offender received 15 years in prison, the maximum sentence at the time, but served less than five of them. In the meantime, the tragedy put a strain on the Birch marriage, which ended in divorce. Birch found himself at a loss when he came home from work in the evenings to an empty house and began devoting his spare time to the MADD Orlando chapter. He served as a volunteer speaker, a victim advocate, and then trained new victim advocates. In 1998, he was elected to the board of directors of the Orlando chapter, and then to its presidency a year later. In 2000, he won a seat on MADD's national board of directors, and was re-elected to a second term there in 2003. That same year, he also became national vice president for victims' issues.

Birch had been an account executive with an Orlando cable television company for the past 15 years, but gave that up when he was elected president of MADD in 2005. Though the organization has many men in its membership rolls—the fathers, husbands, brothers, and grandfathers of those killed by drunk drivers—he became the first person in the organization's 25-year history who was not a white woman to lead MADD. During his three-year term as president, Birch was able to work out of his home in Orlando; the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit organization, with its $53 million budget, are run from its Irving, Texas, headquarters by a chief executive officer.

Birch's role was to serve as the highly visible public spokesperson for MADD. One of his first tasks was to raise awareness of a proposal by the Bush Administration to rescind $1.27 billion in the federal budget already earmarked for the federal Crime Victims Fund—some of which goes to groups like MADD to fund their victim-advocacy programs. "That is at the top of my list at MADD," he told Peter Panepento in the Chronicle of Philanthropy six weeks after becoming president. "A victim advocate gave me my life back." In 2006, the group launched a new initiative, the Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving, reflecting a renewed focus on eradicating the crime altogether, rather than just reducing it, as it had done for the past quarter-decade.

Birch mentioned this new zero-tolerance mission for MADD in an article he was invited to write for Business Week as one of two opposing viewpoints on the merits of ignition interlock devices. In some states, these are court-ordered devices installed on a car owned by someone who has been convicted of a DUI once their license privileges are reinstated. The driver must blow into a Breathalyzer-type device before the ignition allows the car to start; if it detects the presence of alcohol, the device prevents the ignition from firing. "Interlock devices are up to 90% effective while installed in a vehicle, yet it's estimated that only one out of eight convicted drunk drivers each year currently gets the device, and the majority are repeat offenders," Birch wrote, noting that such a device might have saved his son's life had they been standard procedure in Florida back in 1988. Reflecting MADD's new mission to eliminate drunk driving altogether, he avowed the organization's support for such "smart technology" ignition locks becoming standard on all vehicles in the United States someday. "With current ignition interlocks and future technology, we finally have the ability to separate potential killers—drunk drivers—from their weapon, an automobile," he wrote.

Despite MADD's successes over the years, a drunk driver kills someone every 30 minutes in the United States, according to the organization. Birch was committed to someday ending the tragic experience his own family suffered back in 1988 forever. His two sons, Adrian and Rahmlee, are grown and have made him a grandfather four times, but "there's never closure," he told Panepento in the Chronicle of Philanthropy interview. "What you do is adjust. Over the years, I've been able to adjust to the fact that my son is no longer there. Making something positive out of my son's death is something I need to do."

At a Glance …

Born 195(?);divorced; children: Courtney (son, deceased), Adrian, Rahmlee. Education: Attended Valencia Community College.

Career:

Restaurant manager, Orlando, FL, mid-to-late 1980s; Bright House Networks (cable television provider), account executive; Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Central Florida Chapter, Orlando, volunteer speaker, victim advocate, and trainer for new victim advocates, 1988-?; MADD Central Florida Chapter, board of directors, 1998, president, 1999; MADD, national board of directors, 2000-5, national vice president for victims' issues, 2003-05, national president, 2005-.

Addresses:

Office—MADD National Office, 511 E. John Carpenter Fwy, Ste 700, Irving, TX 75062.

Sources

Periodicals

BusinessWeek, December 12, 2006.

Chronicle of Philanthropy, August 18, 2005.

Ebony, November 2005, p. 38.

Washington Post, June 9, 2005, p. B3.

On-line

"MADD National President, Glynn Birch," MADD,www.madd.org/aboutus/0,1056,9836,00.html (March 22, 2007).

"Viewpoint: Tapping Technology to Battle Drunk Driving,"BusinessWeek, http://search.businessweek.com/Search?searchTerm=MADD&resultsPerPage=20 (April 30, 2007).

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