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After losing daughter, dad vows to change culture

updated 3:49 PM EDT, Thu October 11, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

(CNN) -- Leo McCarthy gives college scholarships to teenagers who pledge not to drink while they're underage.

In 2007, McCarthy lost his 14-year-old daughter, Mariah, when an underage drunken driver hit her and two of her friends as they walked down a sidewalk near her home in Butte, Montana.

Through McCarthy's nonprofit, Mariah's Challenge, more than 140 teenagers have received $1,000 scholarships.

CNN asked McCarthy for his thoughts on being chosen as one of the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2012.

CNN: What do you hope this recognition will mean for Mariah's Challenge?

McCarthy: It's a very quiet sense of pride for this town. We have such a hard history of living here. ... (We use) the term "Butte tough." Now, it's more about character and strength, about growing old and helping our youth to grow old.

Leo McCarthy lost his daughter to an underage drunken driver, but he\'s hoping he can prevent future tragedies.
Leo McCarthy lost his daughter to an underage drunken driver, but he's hoping he can prevent future tragedies.

People come up and say, "Hey, congratulations." And some kid said, "I am Mariah's Challenge." And that totally blew me away. So, it's formulating to them that it's really them, not me, that are seen in CNN Heroes. To them, it's growing up by changing this situation a generation at a time.

We're seeing this in sixth-graders coming up; they automatically know about Mariah's Challenge. They automatically know that they're not supposed to drink for four years in high school. So, will they? I don't know. But hey, it's a better start than it was prior to October 27, 2007.

And it's a great honor for parents and youth that are sitting at the table and talking about it. It just gives parents more power to say: "Hey, this is a good deal. Let's talk about it. What's going on in your life?"

So, (the CNN recognition) is a validation of the three girls, and it's a validation of the tool that parents can use at the dinner table. The dinner table is the most powerful place in the world.

CNN: How will you use the $50,000 award that you receive for being selected as a top 10 CNN Hero?

McCarthy: (It) will provide at least 40 scholarships, hopefully this year, that we're going to immediately give out to courageous youth.

Also, the money is going to be used to start our Mariah's Education Initiative for the local elementary and junior highs. Basically, it's going to be a template for teachers to use to assist (the students) in empowerment, honesty, integrity and character.

CNN: What do you want people to know most about your work?

McCarthy: It's about making sure that our youth have an option and a tool to talk to their parents and their loved ones about what's going on in their life.

This is such an in-your-face situation because it stole the innocence of our town when three 14-year-old girls were basically mowed down a half a block from my house, on a pedestrian pathway. That innocence was shaken in this town.

I want this to be a platform for people to say, "OK, I don't want to be like that guy who killed Mariah. But I need some help, because I'm getting group pressure." And I hope that it's a way for them to choose "yes" instead of "no."

I'm not asking you to say "no" to drugs. I'm asking you to say "yes" to yourself and a life of simple self-respect. That's all it is.

CNN: We're coming up on the five-year anniversary of Mariah's death. What does the timing of this honor mean to you?

McCarthy: Surreal, going back to those lonely, sleepless nights after it happened and trying to make sense of this. Stumbling and bumbling about, realizing it's got to be up to me and my family to try to bring something out of this and always believing about the legacy of love ... and seeing it now.

It would have been so easy to build a monument to misery and light the torch of vengeance. ... But we decided to go the tough way, the hard way, which is acknowledging we can all be better and we can always bring good out of bad. There is grace in that, and there is deep peace in that.

Read the full story on CNN Hero Leo McCarthy:
Grieving father offers teens money not to drink

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