Netters Fund And The Capital District
Safe Ride Program
At Martin, Harding & Mazzotti, LLP, we are proud to support organizations like Netters Fund, Inc. and the Capital District Safe Ride Program. Netters Fund was created in memory of Annette “Netters” Balistreri, who was tragically killed by a drunk driver in 2005. Its mission is to aid in the prevention of drunk driving through free safe rides home for individuals who have had too much to drink. It also provides a safe ride back the next day to retrieve their vehicle.
According to founder Mark Balistreri, they are now approaching 3,500 safe rides home. He is hopeful that through their efforts, they may have saved lives and spared other families the devastation he experienced. “It was very difficult to go through. It changed my life forever,” says Balistreri. “Tragedy happens all the time to people, but until they experience it they don’t really think about what they’re doing, and think about making the right choices until it’s too late.”
Learn more about Netters Fund, what it does for our community, and how you can help in the videos below.
My name is Mark Balistreri. I grew up in Raymortown, New York, up in Pittstown. I went to Tamarac High School. And out of high school, I joined the U.S. Coast Guard. I was in there for four and a half years. During my last two years in the Coast Guard, I met Annette back here. I was stationed in Cape May, New Jersey and we started dating. And then I got out of the service to move back here. I worked for Rensselaer County for 23 years. I was deputy director of Public Safety. I ran the 911 Center for the county and volunteer fireman for 28 years. I rode a commercial ambulance for 10 years. I am on my local town board in the Town of Brunswick. But back when I got out of the service and started dating Annette, I worked for Rensselaer County. And in 2005, I got promoted to deputy director at that time. So that’s why I didn’t go on the trip down to Florida with Annette, her mom, dad, and her brother, and sister who were all going down to visit her cousin in Daytona Beach. While they were driving back from Daytona Beach to Disney, which they hadn’t gotten to yet, a drunk driver hit their vehicle and caused the car to overturn. And Annette, her mom, her dad were all killed in the accident. Her sister was critically injured. My brother-in-law wasn’t in the car with them. He was in a different car. So they went to the hospital with my sister-in-law and were there with her during this whole time.
So then, my new boss, the director of Public Safety came to my house, told me what had happened. I got together with Bright’s Funeral Home, and we started planning things out. They were still in Florida, so I had to arrange the three funerals back home. And it would take a while, because it happened out of state, to get them all back. So during that time period, which was about two weeks we waited, a lot of friends and family showed up at my house. You know, we talked and people wanted to know what to do, what we could do. And people were very generous. They started donating money, instead of flowers, because we had two weeks to wait for anything. So I put that money into an account. And during that two weeks, we talked with family and friends and said the best thing we could do was try and do something so that it doesn’t happen to other people, you know, what happened to us.
The best thing we could do is try and do something so that it doesn’t happen to other people, you know, what happened to us. And we came up with some ideas, but we knew basically that, just give people an option to make a right choice, because it’s all about choices.
And we wanted to raise awareness of, you know, we’re not saying don’t go out and have a good time. We’re saying just make the right decisions when you do before you start drinking. So we came up with Netter’s Fund, which I can explain that a little better, what the name means. When Annette was in school, nobody could say Annette, so they called her Net, N-E-T, and that was her nickname.
And then when she went into high school, it became Netters, and that was pretty much her nickname. So we said, “Well, let’s see if we can give him a ride home,” you know, a free ride home and everybody thought that was a good idea. We talked about doing it ourselves, you know, just picking people up at bars, a group of family and friends, but I was a little concerned about the liability issues.
And I said, “Why reinvent the wheel? The taxi companies do it every day, so why don’t we just talk to them and see if they’d be willing to work with us and our program,” and they were. Black & White and Capitaland were the first two in Rensselaer County to get involved. And basically, we created a voucher system. People use the voucher at the bars and they hand that to the cab driver, and then the taxi companies send me a bill once a month, and then we pay it out of the fund.
And then we said, “What about the excuse of, ‘Well, I got to get back to get my car the next day?'” So we included that as part of the program, and they can use another voucher to get back and get their car. So the program grew. We were doing a bar a month when we first started and at some point we ended up with 23 bars in it. And people were using it pretty steadily.
We were averaging about a ride a day. You know, as time passes, people forget, until another tragedy happens, and then everybody remembers. So we started seeing a decline in some of the bars, and we met with them and we asked them if they would be willing to do a fundraiser a year to help fund it.
And as far as the funding side of things, we have a Bowl-a-Thon and a golf tournament each year, and those funds go directly into the account and pay for those rides. So that’s how we figured we could fund it just with fundraisers and donations.
Since Uber and Lyft came around, which is fine because people are still making the right choices by using those services. We’ve seen a decline in the rides, but there’s still four or five bars that really use the program regularly. We’re approaching 3,500 rides, so we like to think that out of that, we think it was, hopefully saved a life for somebody, you know, somebody’s family, or something, by doing that.
We’re trying to continue to raise awareness so people don’t forget, or when they do forget, we remind them to make the right choices when they go out drinking. Take advantage of our program, take advantage of Uber, take advantage of Lyft, take advantage of a friend offering a ride. We’d like to raise our funding, our revenue a little bit, and maybe try and move into other counties. We have a DBA for the Safe Ride Program in Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady and Saratoga counties, but we haven’t really moved too far. We don’t want to bankrupt our program by trying to expand too quickly.
The busiest time of year, the night before Thanksgiving, is generally the busiest night for bars and restaurants, and you hate for things to happen around the holidays, anytime, but around the holidays especially. People just make the wrong choices.
I would just say that it was very difficult to go through. It changed my life forever. You have all the different areas of grief and different levels of grief, I guess, and I never made it past the anger one. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that until it actually happens to them. I mean, tragedy happens all the time to people, but until they experience it, they don’t really think about what they’re doing, and think about making the right choices until it’s too late.
I think businesses and individuals can do a lot for the program. Most importantly, I think they need to understand that they all need to make the right choice when they’re out drinking, and not get behind the wheel of a car. But individuals can also go to our website, www.netters.us or www.saferideprogram.com. And there’s a lot of information on there on how they can help, contribute, donate, or if they wanna get more involved, how they can contact us to get more involved in the program.
For the businesses, they could also help out or join the program at some point if they’d like. I mean, we do a bowlathon and a golf tournament each year, so the more people that we get, and the more money we can raise, and all that money goes to get people home safe from those establishments.
I just think it’s important that people realize that they don’t…they make the choices before they go out, and I think before they start drinking. And I think people also need to realize that people forget over time until something happens again. And I think it’s important that that something that happens again isn’t them.