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As it was for many, Christmas 2007 was a joyous event for then-12-year-old Melissa Stegner, shared with her family.

She laughed and opened presents given to her by her mother, father, brother, two sisters and grandmother from Pennsylvania. But a few days later, tragedy struck.

Her father asked if Melissa wanted to ride along when he and her 13-year-old brother were going to take her grandmother home.

She didn’t go. On the return trip, a drunk driver took the lives of Melissa’s father and brother. The driver also was killed in the in Frederick County, Md., crash.

Today, Stegner is a junior at Centreville High School.

“It still affects my life every single day,” she said. “It is still a very hard struggle for me. My brother should be graduating this year and he is not here. He should be going to prom, and he won’t be. I think that will affect me for the rest of my life, and I hope no one else has to go through that.”

For the past three years, Stegner has made a serious effort to make sure it does not. She has volunteered for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and told her story and spoke out against the dangers of drinking and driving.

“She started doing a few speaking events when she was only 14 and I was very impressed,” said Noreen Dinndorf, Senior Victim Advocate for the northern Virginia affiliate of MADD. “After a loss like she suffered, even for an adult, it is very difficult. But she had composure and was very effective.”

Last fall at Centreville, Stegner started a chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions, an organization whose aim is to prevent accidents from students making potentially destructive decisions.

“I think underage drinking is a serious problem,” Stegner said. “Especially when prom season comes around.”

“Melissa turned a personal tragedy into a cause for the greater good,” said Centreville High School Principal Mike Campbell. “She has worked tirelessly to highlight the dangers of drinking and driving to the Centreville High community.”

According to MADD, teen alcohol use kills about 6,000 people per year, more than all other illegal drugs combined.

To combat that trend, MADD and State Farm Insurance have begun a national effort called the National Teen Influnencer Summit, which starting next month will focus on how to best influence and educate teens.

Ten teens from across the country have been chosen to take a stand against underage drinking. The group will provide their insights and attempt to create a national underage drinking prevention intiative.

Stegner recently was chosen as one of those teens.

“I think it is a really exciting opportunity for me,” she said. “I will be able to build more skills on how I can be a better leader in educating teens on the dangers of drinking.”

Stegner said she plans to continue educating against those dangers for quite a while.

“I don’t want this to happen to another person. I want to save people from having to go through this,” she said.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com