NEWBERRY — Tragedy transformed Missy Jenkins Smith from a shy 15-year-old into a confident woman who works as a counselor and travels around the country giving speeches.
On Monday, she will bring her story of resilience and hope to youth at a leaderhip conference provided by Farm Bureau.
In 1997, she and her friends were gathered for prayer in the lobby of Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. The pop, pop of what she thought was firecrackers and a prank actually was gunfire from a student school shooter.
Jenkins was shot and paralyzed from the chest down.
Her story, I Choose to be Happy: A School Shooting Survivors’ Triumph over Tragedy, shows the shooting did not define her. Instead, it gave her opportunities.
“I was a shy person before this but being able to speak in front of groups is something I am passionate about,” Smith said. “It was an ability I did not know I had as I took something negative and made something positive from it. The first time I spoke was at a middle school in Illinois. I realized then how much the story helped others and me. And the more I spoke, the more confident I became.”
Smith overcame the odds and adversity to attend college, earn a degree in social work, get married and have a family. She chose a degree in social work. For 10 years she’s worked counseling youth in a school setting for at-risk students.
The program helps with goal setting and helps them meet behavior goals.
Her goal as a speaker, counselor, mother and author is to help intervention come to troubled students before a shooting takes place.
“We teach them to learn to make better choices … and really the students I work with often need extra attention and someone to listen to them,” she said. “Every day I use my story. I learned a lot of lessons from it.”
That message will be one she shares Monday.
“My purpose in life was defined at 15. I am so blessed,” she said. “Prior to (the shooting) I lived day to day but (during the rehab and adjustment that followed) I learned it is important to plan and set goals.”
One piece of her talk is proactive. She reminds students to report any violent act and to take warnings and warning signs seriously.
“Bullying was considered a normal thing (back in 1997) but (now I want kids to) learn the need to be empathetic and reinforce the Golden Rule,” she said. “Treat people with respect because the way you treat people at that moment can affect the rest of their lives.”
As she reflected on that day in 1997, she said the 14-year-old shooter, a boy in her band class, was not targeting Christians exclusively, nor did she feel she was specifically targeted. Yet her life was forever changed.
In the months that followed the shooting, she underwent grueling physical therapy and occupational therapy, partly in an in-patient program she called a boot camp. She drew upon encouragement from around the world with some 600 letters and 45 packages arriving in just one day.
“That support helped me see I needed to persist on in making something of myself,” she said.
During that time, she hit a low point and then bounced back up. The 15-year-old version of herself who could walk, she said, felt death was impossible, that she was invincible.
“I am blessed to be alive. That bullet missed all major arteries and organs and both sides of my brain. I received a second chance at life,” she said. “There is no such thing as closure but I have had what I needed to get through it.”
Part of what she had was the ability to forgive the shooter, a distinction she makes in her book. Forgiveness is something she did to free herself from the anger.
“I spoke to him at the sentencing. The forgiveness released me. I did not want to be angry at my second chance in life,” she said. “I could stay angry or choose to move on and stay positive. Now I have everything I ever wanted, except the ability to walk.”
She was pregnant when she and her husband, Josh, a gym teacher, football coach and a farmer, agreed she should visit Michael Carneal in prison to hear his side of the story.
He and his lawyers claimed mental illness played a role in the shooting and they claimed bullying did as well.
Though the visit did not bring complete closure, it was one of the tools she used to deal with the aftermath of the shooting.
The tragedy brought publicity and opened doors. She met Bill and Hillary Clinton at a youth forum to talk on violence.
Smith was on Oprah and the Anderson Cooper show. She met Henry Winkler (The Fonz), Martin Short, Janet Reno, Sarah McLachlan and Ben Affleck.
She relied upon her family for support as she completed college, rooming with her twin sister, who was also there when she was shot.
Her sister helped motivate her because Missy wanted to do whatever her sister was doing, albeit with a few modifications along the way.
Protective instincts to make a difference
Now a mother, she has explained her story to her children over time in age appropriate amounts.
As her children got older she shared how someone shot people and they got hurt but she did so while reminding them of ways their schools are safe and that people are protecting them.
Those protective instincts are at the heart of her message, particularly the effort she makes each day to protect her outlook on life and its blessings.
“I wanted to be happy (as a kid) at age 15 I realized happiness is a choice you have to make. People asked then (and ask now) Would I change anything? I say no,” Smith said. “I would be there (and do it all again) because it made me into the person that I am today and gave my life purpose.”
For more on her speaking engagements or to order copies of Smith’s book, visit www.missyjenkinssmith.com/.