Stunt-gone-wrong leaves young man’s life changed forever
by Jessica Langdon
TONGANOXIE — Facing a crowd of teens inside Sacred Heart Parish here, 23-year-old Joe White challenged the group to a game.
“Raise your left hand,” he said. Hands shot in the air, and Joe raised his along with them.
“Raise your right hand,” Joe instructed then. Right hands went up, but Joe’s stayed close to his side.
Watching his face, you could see he was trying hard to do what came so easily to everyone else.
His friend Abbie Eli cheered him on.
“Come on, Joe. Come on, Joe,” she said, standing next to him.
“I can’t,” Joe finally told the crowd. “I wanted to, but I can’t.”
Joe lost the use of his right arm and one of his legs — and has had to relearn much of what he once did effortlessly — because of a decision he made five years ago.
A mix of teenaged guys, alcohol, a video camera and a stunt involving a moving vehicle forever changed him.
Today, Joe, who grew up a member of Holy Family Parish in Eudora, visits groups like this, hoping even one young person will make a better decision because of his story.
A life-changing choice
It was homecoming weekend for Washburn Rural High School in Topeka.
Joe, who was a student there, didn’t go to the dance. He wasn’t with family, either.
No, in the dark hours of Sept. 29, 2006, Joe was hanging out with friends. And he had been drinking.
He doesn’t remember everything about what he did next, but he knows he almost died because of it.
The car he was riding in was traveling 35 mph.
“I jumped,” he said soberly to the teens at Sacred Heart on Oct. 5.
They were silent, all eyes trained on Joe as he talked.
“I jumped,” he said again, his voice rising in disbelief, “from the car.”
With a camcorder documenting the night, Joe jumped out as he and his friends tried to shoot a “crazy stunt” inspired by the ones they had seen the night before in a movie.
In a documentary that is part of Joe’s presentation, you can hear his friends’ reaction when he doesn’t get up after the stunt went wrong.
“It was the phone call that no parent wants to get at night,” his father, Bob White, says in the video.
In the hours and days after his accident, the situation looked grim. Joe had suffered a brain injury.
His family talked about what to do with his organs.
A priest anointed him.
‘I give you my story’
Joe had surgery to remove pressure on his brain.
His condition began to improve.
He moved ahead, taking one baby step after another, relearning even the basic things, such as counting to 10. He learned to walk and talk again.
His path was sometimes very difficult, filled with loneliness, sadness and anger. At one point early on, Joe tried to commit suicide.
But surrounded by support, he kept going and ultimately found ways to use his own life to help others.
Faith filled his heart.
Joe told the group in Tonganoxie about the relationship he has built with Jesus in the years following his accident.
“I’m so, so sorry, Jesus. You saved my life,” he prayed. Finally realizing how much Jesus had given to him, he wanted to give something in return. That is how these visits began.
“I give you my story,” said Joe.
As part of this therapy, Joe worked with his parents and his transition specialist at Washburn Rural to develop “Joe White: My Story.”
Eli books his presentations. And even though they have been friends for a long time and she has seen his presentation many times, it breaks her heart every time she sees the footage of what he went through.
A message to remember
During parts of Joe’s presentation, you could hear a pin drop. As he carefully and deliberately turned his thoughts into words, his young audience seemed captivated.
Despite the seriousness of Joe’s injuries and message, however, the evening was far from depressing.
The teens were quick to raise their hands when he asked them questions. His sense of humor shone through, and several times the parish center erupted in laughter.
After his formal presentation, Joe took questions from the teens — in fact, he said he loves that part of his presentations.
One zeroed in on forgiveness: Was he able to forgive the kids who were with him that night?
At first, Joe said, he wanted them to have to do the same things he had done — make the same mistakes, then somehow deal with the results.
In the end, though, forgiveness won out.
“Jesus said forgive them and move on — move on,” said Joe.
“I forgive them,” he added. “It really, really hurts, but I forgive them.”
Attendees lined up for hugs and pictures with Joe.
Many also bought wristbands. The gray ones say “Remember Joe . . . Be safe.” The blue bands read “JW Never Give Up JW.”
Sophia Wetta and Allison Dorsey, both 13, are in the confirmation class at Sacred Heart in Tonganoxie. Both girls bought wristbands, and they know — even without the physical reminders — that they’ll remember Joe long after this night.
Sophia saw that he was a normal guy who was involved in an accident.
One thing that really impressed her was “the way he knew all the psalms and pretty much the whole Bible.”
They took away lessons about the price of a bad decision, and they also learned something about their faith.
‘No matter what happens to you, you can always grow in your faith and turn back to God,” said Allison.
Both girls knew they’d be talking about Joe at school the next day. Sophia was already thinking about telling her principal about his presentation, hoping to bring Joe there to talk to students.
‘Never give up’
One of Joe’s favorite Scripture passages is Psalms 31:25 — “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.”
“Remember, never ever, ever give up,” Joe told the group. “Never give up!”
Today, Joe loves to draw and edit movies.
Videos help tell the story of the life-changing decision he made, the friends who have traveled this journey with him, and how far he has come.
He continues to make progress in his recovery.
When a girl at his Tonganoxie presentation asked him whether he would go back to the time of the accident and change it, he said “no.”
He knows the decisions he made were stupid, reckless and careless, and he hopes sharing his story will help others avoid making destructive decisions.
He doesn’t live in the past, though. He is surrounded by a supportive family and good friends. And he has a message he believes in with his whole heart to share with the world.
“I love my life so much,” said Joe.
Want to bring Joe White’s story to your organization or school?
Find out more at: www.facebook.com. Search for Joe’s fan page with the words: “Joe White MyStory.”
To book a presentation, send an email to: JoeWhiteMyStory@yahoo.com.