NEWBERRY — Mixing humor and wheelchair tricks with a serious message of overcoming adversity and intervening to prevent bullying, author and counselor Missy Jenkins Smith spoke to teens Monday afternoon at a youth leadership conference led by Farm Bureau.
In 1997, Smith was paralyzed from the chest down during a school shooting in West Paducah, Ky.
In the aftermath, she said she took stock of her situation and made a conscious choice, once she hit the lowest of low points, to choose to look at her new chance on life from a standpoint of happiness.
At her lowest point, when she could not sit up in bed, the rehab was grueling and the adjustment so hard that she just decided she would stay in bed for the rest of her life.
But her family, especially her twin sister, would not allow her to choose that path. Each day her mother read Missy letters from supporters from around the world, people for whom she knew she owed it to battle back.
Not only did Smith sit up and move out of bed, she did so with a purpose that became clearer later in life.
Her calling is to share this story with others, to counsel youth and to work to decrease the probability of another school shooting or teen-related tragedy.
Smith opened up the floor for questions after her talk and one of the first requests was a reminder that she show the students a wheelchair trick she promised.
As part of her physical and occupational therapy routine post-shooting, Smith had to pop a wheelie in her chair and then wheel all the way from her room to the cafeteria of the rehab facility. If the wheel touched the floor she had to start over.
She used that example and others to illustrate the importance of pushing through adversity, and Smith showed a new trick she learned while there — how to pop a wheelie and do a 360-degree turn at the same time.
The trick was not a stunt but a part of a comprehensive program to strengthen her core body and to help her psychologically adjust as well as live independently despite paralysis.
“I learned how bullying can hurt people but through the power of forgiveness people can be set free. I learned to set goals and care about the future because I almost didn’t have one,” she said.
Smith called on the teens at the leadership event to go back to their respective schools and neighborhoods as active participants to dispel bullying and the bullying culture.
The shooter, Michael Carneal, said he opened fire in response to constant bullying at the school. That is one reason she feels called to intervene in the face of bullying.
Smith shared how, thanks to the support of the community, fans and most importantly her family, she overcame adversity and achieved all her major goals in life.
Goals met, dreams remain
“I have a husband, a job I love, two wonderful boys and it’s a happy life with everything I ever wanted (except being able to walk),” she said.
She can use braces to stand and walk with support as she did to graduate and to recite her wedding vows. Smith left the students with her belief that she will walk again some day.
“They are making a lot of advances in medicine all the time,” she said. “And even if I don’t walk again on this earth, I know one day I will walk again in heaven.”
Mostly, she urged teens to tell adults if they have problems instead of letting things build up inside.
Had that happened in her home town, she believes a tragedy could have been averted so she calls on those teens to learn from the lessons of the past and embrace a future where gun violence is less likely.