On Dec. 1, 1997, a 14-year-old freshman brought a gun into Heath High School in Paducah where he fired several rounds at a youth prayer group, killing three students and injuring another five.
Missy Jenkins Smith, a sophomore at the time, was one of those shot. A bullet entered through her shoulder, hitting her lung and spine before exiting her lower back. At the hospital, doctors informed her of what she already suspected—she was paralyzed from the waist down.
Smith said she is not bitter about being paralyzed, but is thankful she was spared. Despite being paralyzed, Smith said she forgave the shooter face-to-face at his sentencing.
“Anger wouldn’t bring those girls back,” Smith said. “Anger wouldn’t let me walk again.”
Since then, Smith has been traveling the country, sharing her story and the power of forgiveness and healing. Her travels brought Smith to EKU on Oct. 6, before a standing room only crowd in the O’Donnell auditorium. The lecture was special for Smith because her two sons, ages nine and six, were in attendance for the first time.
Smith talked about the shooter himself, how he was unfairly bullied and how he was a class clown, constantly putting up an emotional barrier.
She recalled a moment where she spotted the shooter eating donuts during lunch. Another student approached him and asked if he could have one, only to crumble the donuts, spit on them and throw them back in his face—a sight that Smith said made her sick to watch.
The shooter is currently serving a sentence of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole. Smith said when she went to speak to him in prison, he formally apologized to her, and she told him she forgave him.
Smith talked about her struggle immediately following her paralysis, from learning how to use a wheelchair to being independent in her life. She recalled that no one treated her differently after the shooting, she received care packages and she even met a man that had the heart of one of her classmates, Nicole Hadley, whose organs were donated by her parents.
While still in high school, Smith was contacted by a doctor in Los Angeles about an experimental body brace that would allow her to stand upright and move without her wheelchair. Smith jumped at the opportunity. After six months, she used the brace to dance at her senior prom, walk across the stage at graduation, and say her marriage vows to her husband.
After receiving a standing ovation at the end of her talk, Smith answered several questions in a Q&A session, ranging from her stance on how to handlebullying to requests that she do a trick in her wheelchair. Smith also signed copies of her book, I Choose to Be Happy: A School Shooting Survivor’s Triumph Over Tragedy, which was available for sale.
The next Chautauqua lecture will feature Gwynne Dyer at O’Donnell Hall and is scheduled for today, Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m.