Suffolk County Deputy Sheriff Michael Kern watches a driver walk...

Suffolk County Deputy Sheriff Michael Kern watches a driver walk a straight line during a field sobriety test at a DWI checkpoint off the LIE in Medford early Jan. 2, 2011. (Jan. 2, 2011) Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

For the Long Island chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the story starts with the "death book."

Soon after Janice Strow was killed by a drunken driver at age 22, her father, Marvin Strow, 77, clipped newspaper articles of young people killed in drinking and driving crashes. This was nearly 30 years ago, when the dangers of drinking and driving were not as highly publicized and penalties were not as severe as they are today.

"He took pictures out and kept a record of mostly young adults who were killed by drunk drivers, and then he followed the cases through the courts and saw what was happening," Celia Strow, 74, Janice's mother, said.

The Strows contacted several other families from the articles, and Long Island's MADD chapter was born in the basement of their Hicksville home with just $5 in the treasury. As the local chapter, founded in 1982, nears its 30th year, the national organization just marked its three-decade milestone.

Today, MADD has 275 entities across the country, and more than 2 million supporters. Locally, the Long Island chapter has grown to a staff of four with 128 volunteers, with numerous initiatives and events.

"We have grown tremendously from two people sitting in their basement sending out letters," said Denna Cohen of Coram, Long Island chapter president. "Our activism is remarkable. We don't let up."

Through the efforts of the Strows, MADD, legislators and law enforcement professionals, DWI and alcohol-related injury and death have been elevated to a violent crime and the number of fatalities and injuries has declined steadily, according to the Long Island chapter.

The state has passed a number of stricter laws and penalties, including raising the drinking age to 21 in 1985 and in 2003, dropping the limit on blood-alcohol content for drivers from .10 percent to .08 percent.

"MADD's efforts are almost single-handedly responsible for the period of enlightenment on this issue that has occurred over the past few decades. They are an ally of ours and they have become the model for how advocacy organizations can influence policy and public awareness at the local and national level," Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said.

The local effort began soon after November 1980. Janice Strow, the second oldest of four daughters who had just graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology, was killed in a crash in Syosset with a driver who was charged with driving while intoxicated. The DWI offender pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and did not serve his entire yearlong sentence. He was put in a work-release program.

"We were devastated by her loss and were amazed at how the court system worked," Celia Strow said.

As leaders of this small new organization, the Strows contacted legislators, spoke at schools, met with victims' families and spoke with drivers on probation to try to cut down on recidivism. Within the first decade, the chapter grew and the Strows decided to turn it over to others.

"We stepped away," Celia Strow said. "Hearing the same stories tears a scab off your heart, and every time you heard another one, it ripped that scab right off again."

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