More than 600 Marion County students, parents and community members attended one of three presentations April 25 to hear about a young man’s life today and the tragic turn it took homecoming night in 2006.
According to Joe White’s dad, it was the phone call that no parent wants to get.
“At 1:30 a.m.,” he said, “we got a phone call and I don’t hear the phone ring, my wife does.”
Without knowing how bad the situation was, the voice on the other end of the phone let White’s parents know that he was at St. Francis Hospital’s emergency room in Topeka and that he had been in an accident.
White was like many teenage boys in their senior year of high school, according to Abbie Ely, his agent and friend.
Also like most high school boys, he was enjoying the Friday night homecoming game at Washburn Rural High School in Topeka.
But not like most of his peers, White decided to continue drinking after the game and jumped from a moving car going 35 mph in a stunt that went very wrong.
Thinking back, White stood before his audience last week at the USD 408 Performing Arts Center, reflecting about that night and reliving those moments for the benefit of other students in a video presentation.
“Watching it,” he said, “I cry and cry my eyes out—can’t believe it.
“Why? Why? I know why. I was foolish. I was so, so stupid. Drinking affects everything, but here is the thing, it all comes clear.”
From the accident, he is paralyzed on his left side because of the injury to the right side of his brain and he had to relearn to eat, talk and walk, all because of a decision he made five years ago.
A mix of teenaged boys, alcohol, a camcorder and a stunt involving a moving car changed his life forever.
Having drank two times the legal limit, White and his friends were wanting to imitate a stunt they saw from a movie starring Johnny Knoxville. They would then sell it and get rich.
“This is very, very hard,” he said, about what happened.
“Be strong all of you and put your hopes in the Lord,” he told a group of parents, young people and experts at the evening session.
“Remember never, never, never give up,” he said.
Local experts weigh in
Linda Ogden with Families and Communities Together, and USD?408 coordinated the event.
Although somewhat disappointed at the low turnout for the Parent-Student-Church-Community event, Ogden said everyone will have another chance to meet White on Sunday, June 3, as part of Chingawassa activities.
“The purpose of the community meeting was not to tell parents how bad they are or how bad their kids are,” Ogden said. “We have a county full of great families and great kids.”
The meeting, she said, was to set up the opportunity for parents and teens to talk to each other about behaviors and choices and parental expectations.
“I wish more parents had attended,” she said. “It was a reminder that we have to listen to our kids, to tell our children that underage alcohol use is not tolerated, and to be aware of who our kids are with and what they are doing when they are outside adult supervision.”
Wilma Mueller, Marion County Sheriff’s deputy, also talked about the evening event.
“Joe’s story began long before the accident at 18. Joe took his first drink of alcohol at age 14 and he became so sick from that he never drank again—until his junior year in high school when he dropped out of sports and started partying,” she said.
Mueller said in documenting that night, the friends videotaped each other doing stunts.
One such reenactment chills the viewer as the video compilation White has put together plays on the screen, she said.
“Joe decides to jump out of a moving car; his ‘friends’ do not discourage this choice.”
The next thing everyone sees is White “snoring,” while his friends continue to video and ask him if he is OK, she said.
“In actuality, Joe was gasping for his breath while he lay there severely injured and unconscious from the impact to the left side of his head,” she said.
Mueller said that while everyone has seen news coverage of similar tragedies, she also said she has heard people say “that just doesn’t happen here” or “not in our town” or “not in our community.”
“It is a reality in Marion County just like in other counties throughout Kansas and the United States,” she said.
Jami Lawless with Prairie View said one important thing is that in his story, Joe had done the same thing many times before the night of the accident with no consequences.
“He didn’t think that anything would be different that night,” she said. “ I think many people go into things looking at it like that, but never realize when one small thing might be different and have drastic consequences from the same thinking and actions they have done many times before.”
Lawless said she also thinks parents need to be involved with their children and make sure they set boundaries and rules to keep them safe—even if it is not popular with the kids.
Marion High School principal Tod Gordon said he appreciated Ogden and her efforts in bringing Joe to Marion.
“We also have several dedicated agencies working together to help students,” he said. “Marion High School will continue to host these events hoping we can make a difference for students. Joe indicated it was worth his trip if he helped just one student.”