Daughter’s Death Creates Mother’s Mission


If Debbie Allen weren’t just an ordinary, flesh-and-blood mother, but one with magical powers, she could draw upon every ounce of her super-mother strength and roll back the clock two years – to before December 20, 2008. Once there, Allen could move heaven and earth to save the life of Shelby, her 17-year-old daughter.


Debbie and Shelby Allen, Thanksgiving 2008

But Allen lacks magical powers. Two years ago – just like today – Allen was just a regular mom who gave her daughter Shelby permission to sleep over at a friend’s house. What Allen didn’t know was the girls changed plans and locations without telling Shelby’s parents. Shelby and her friend joined a slumber party at the home of people unknown to Allen.

In an excerpted message from Allen’s website, Shelby’s Rules, Shelby’s friend tells what happened:

“That first night of winter break started out as carefree, fun, we laughed, we had a blast. But it all turned wrong within a matter of hours. We made the decision to drink. Shelb got sick, I got sick. The last thing I can remember from that night is seeing Shelby against the toilet, before I passed out as well. I found Shelby the next morning, I knew right then something was wrong. But it was too late. Nothing could be done. Early that morning, December 20th, my best friend died.”

For Debbie and her husband Steve, a couple who’d already lost their infant daughter, Chelsea, to SIDS years earlier, it was as if lightning had cruelly struck their hearts and home once again. Shelby died, and when she did, she left behind not just her mourning parents and older sister, Tera, but scores of family and friends.

They knew Shelby as the kind of girl who helped others, who listened, and who even wrote a farewell letter – “Last Words” – to family and friends before she went on a trip; just in case the plane crashed and she died before getting to tell everyone she loved how much they meant to her.


The Allen sisters, Tera and Shelby.

Through the haze of grief the Allens asked questions. Why Shelby, a mature, level-headed teenager who’d never given them or anyone else an ounce of trouble? How could this have happened? How could a healthy young woman die after drinking small doses of vodka over two hours?

The questions demanded answers, and once Shelby’s mother found them, she felt it her moral obligation to tell others. In her daughter’s memory, Allen formed a foundation, Shelby’s Rules – An Alcohol Poisoning Education Foundation. She created a website, ShelbysRules.com. She began speaking around the country about the dangers of acute alcohol poisoning. Most recently, she successfully lobbied on behalf of California AB 1999 and AB 2486.

AB 1999 is more of a carrot. It’s geared with young people in mind – young people who are afraid that if they do call 911 to get help, they’ll get in trouble. AB 1999 grants limited immunity from legal prosecution if someone under 21 seeks medical help for themselves or others.

However, AB 2486 is more of a stick geared toward adults. It sets into motion potential legal penalties for adult hosts who furnish alcohol to those under 21, especially if it results in injury or death.

Allen, a slender beauty with long, dark hair, shakes her head and smiles sadly whenever people express surprise at this “new” legislation. Most people are under the mistaken impression that such a law already existed – yes, past tense. Some time in the ’70s that law was reversed. Prior to the reversal, California’s legislation penalized hosts who gave alcohol to minors.

Allen is pleased to say the legislation is back in effect.

She’s also pleased to speak to any groups who’ll invite her, even traveling cross-country. Ironically, as of this story, Allen has yet to be invited to speak at any area high schools, even Foothill High School, where Shelby was a student.

Allen said among the reasons administrators cite for not wanting her to discuss alcohol poisoning with students is “it’s too soon” after Shelby’s death to address such a painful issue. To that, Allen’s response is one of complete frustration.

“Too soon? I’m the mother of the one who died – and I’m talking about it!”

Allen said that part of her message to groups that welcome education about alcohol poisoning is the fact that many of today’s youth don’t just drink to drink – they drink to get drunk, and they do it quickly. Often, Allen said, this means slamming rapid, consecutive shots of hard liquor in sweetened flavors that make it easy to swallow.

Allen tells groups that a few shots of an 80-proof alcohol like vodka can prove be deadly, especially to women, or people with smaller frames.

She also says that most adults are clueless about how their kids are drinking, that many adults assume their kids drink as they did in their day.

But what Allen finds most disturbing is that excessive drinking followed by vomiting and passing out have become so common among younger people that those symptoms are almost considered a “normal” part of the young drinking experience.  Worse yet, Allen said, it’s often those very symptoms that precipitate someone falling into a coma, or aspirating vomit while sleeping and choking to death. Or, as was the case with Shelby, the drinker dies of acute alcohol poisoning.

What will forever haunt Allen is the knowledge that if just one person had called 911 the night Shelby became sick and passed out from drinking, her daugthter might still be alive today. The realization that Shelby could have been saved is what keeps Allen going, and what drives her to take her message to anyone who’ll listen.’

“People say to us, ‘Gosh, you’re so strong. Why are you doing this?’ ” Allen said. “To us the answer is simple: How could we know what we know now and not do this?”

Although Allen had no magical powers to prevent her daughter’s death, there was something about losing her child to something that could have been prevented that bestowed upon Allen a sort of super power. Her internal strength is fueled by grief, sadness and the hope that no other child dies of alcohol poisoning; that no other parents bury a daughter or son.

That’s why Allen continues talking to groups that range in size from three to 3,000. It’s why she’s created little cards that contain emergency information about alcohol poisoning that she gives out everywhere she goes. It’s why she passes out wristbands and sweatshirts emblazoned with Shelby’s philosophy: Dig Life!

On Thursday, Allen will be the featured speaker at the Redding Library at a Brown Bag Lunch hosted by the California Women Lead. After that, she’s booked out well into next year with other speaking engagements.

Although there are moments when Allen grows weary, she’s inspired to continue.

“Sometimes I feel as if I hear Shelby’s voice saying, ‘Mom, they don’t know … keep going,’ ” Allen said.

“So I keep going.”

And if that doesn’t work, Allen always has Shelby’s “Last Words” to draw from – like these, written by Shelby at age 16, in case she died in a plane crash:

“Mom … After losing Chelsea, I know you lost all faith and found it very hard to continue with life. But you did. And that’s exactly what you need to do now. Remember everything, but don’t regret or be sad or think it could’ve been different. Life does funny things sometimes.”


Click here for Shelbys Rules: Dig Life!

Cick here to see a YouTube recording of Debbie Allen speaking to San Ramon Valley High School students.

Click here to hear a podcast of Doni interviewing Debbie Allen on Doni and Friends.

Upcoming talk: Debbie Allen will be the featured guest at the next Brown Bag lunch hosted by California Women Lead North State Chapter on Thur., Dec. 2, from 12-1 at the Redding Library. Allen will discuss Shelby’s Rules – an Alcohol Poisoning Foundation that she founded, and her success at lobbying for California AB 1999 and AB 2486.

doni-new-mugIndependent online journalist Doni Greenberg founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007, Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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