Dec. 1, 1997, marks the day that life changed for a Heath High School sophomore - and not only because a shooting there left her paralyzed from the chest down.
It was also the day that Missy Jenkins-Smith decided to forgive Michael Carneal, who killed three students and injured five, including her, when he fired a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol into a prayer circle in the high school's lobby. The choice allowed her to move on and find the light in a dark situation.
"I didn't want that situation to control me for the rest of my life," said Jenkins-Smith, now a 32-year-old mother of two with a full-time public speaking career. "You choose how to react to the events that happen to you."
Not everyone may be so quick to forgive as Jenkins-Smith, who recently re-released a book, "I Choose to Be Happy," about her experience. But the survivor hopes her story can encourage people to make that choice.
She'll share her message about the importance of kindness, forgiveness and recognizing potential school violence on Friday at a talk sponsored by the Guess Anti-Bullying Foundation at the Paducah campus of Murray State University.
"It is important for our young people, our parents and community members to understand the impact their words and actions have on another. They have the choice to be kind and to stand up for themselves and for others," said Susan Guess, who founded the organization with her daughter Morgan.
Jenkins-Smith said she experienced bullying years before the shooting left her confined to a wheelchair. She was in middle school, she recalled, and thought the behavior was just par for the course. She now believes that empathy can save lives.
"I didn't realize the impact until I became an adult," she said of her experience with bullying. "I remember it like it happened yesterday; I can't imagine someone going through that every single day."
Jenkins-Smith added that Carneal, whom she spoke with after the shooting, cited bullying as one of the factors in his spree. She said she'd witnessed some incidences of bullying in high school, but never spoke up.
Now, Jenkins-Smith, who earned a degree in social work from Murray State University and counseled troubled youth in Calloway County for 10 years, encourages children who see or experience such behavior to tell an adult.
"Learn to talk about it. There's so many people who hold their problems in, and I think that's when it negatively overcomes you," she said.
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