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Shooting survivor talks bullying, forgiveness

By Leanne Fullerlfuller@paducahsun.com

Missy Jenkins Smith - who was paralyzed from the chest down at 15 when she was shot during the 1997 Heath High School shooting - spoke about the theme of the book she wrote about her experience when she visited the Murray State University Paducah campus Friday night.

The book, which Jenkins Smith co-authored with William Croyle, is titled "I Choose to be Happy: A School Shooting Survivor's Triumph Over Tragedy" and was recently relaunched.

Jenkins Smith, who also spoke at Heath and Lone Oak middle schools Friday, recounted her journey from the day of the shooting to her life now as a 32-year-old wife and mother of two who worked as a counselor for troubled kids and now works full time as a public speaker.

When doctors confirmed she was paralyzed after the shooting, Jenkins Smith said she was surprised by how OK she was with the news.

"I realized how blessed I was to still be alive," Jenkins Smith said.

Jenkins Smith explained that when she was shot, the bullet entered her left shoulder and hit her lung and spinal cord before exiting the right side of her back but missed every other major artery and organ in her body. She said when she was shown the X-ray, she felt like God had been watching over her.

"I just realized that I was getting a second chance at life, and I was blessed to have that," Jenkins Smith said.

And Jenkins Smith has used that second chance to help others. She explained that she wanted to give kids like Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old student who shot her and several other students - killing three and injuring five others - someone to talk to in the hopes of preventing similar tragedies. So after graduating from high school, she earned a bachelor's degree in social work at Murray State University and worked as a counselor at Calloway County Schools Day Treatment Center.

Now as a public speaker, the shooting survivor recounts her experiences and stresses the importance of bullying prevention. She explained that before the shooting, she'd witnessed other kids bullying Carneal and that he'd always acted like it didn't bother him. She said no one knew how deeply he was affected by it until it was too late. She said now when she speaks to kids about bullying, she encourages them to consider the impact their words and actions have on one another.

"One thing that I tell kids when I speak to them is that, 'If you look around, we're all different. We all don't look the same, but one thing that we do have in common is that we have feelings,'" Jenkins Smith said.

Jenkins Smith also stressed the importance of teaching kids not to be bystanders, both when witnessing bullying and when they think someone might commit an act of violence. She said before the shooting, Carneal showed the gun to other kids and no one told an adult. Additionally, she said it's important for kids to feel like adults will be there for them, and for teachers and other adults to be there for kids to talk to.

Although Carneal's act of violence forever changed her life, Jenkins Smith chose to forgive him and told him so at his sentencing in 1998. She said it was important for her to forgive him because she didn't want what happened to rule her life, and if she allowed herself to remain angry with him, the shooting would control the rest of her life.

"I knew that being angry and mad was not going to change anything. It definitely wasn't going to make me walk again. It wasn't going to bring anybody back, and it wasn't going to change what happened," Jenkins Smith said. "And I didn't want my second chance at a life to be angry. I wanted to be happy."

That choice - to forgive and to be happy - is what Jenkins Smith credited with the life she has today.

"I'm glad I chose to be happy because if I didn't choose that, then I don't think that I would have a job that I love, I don't think that I would have my wonderful husband. I have my two sweet boys that are blessings to me," Jenkins Smith said, "and I can really sit up here and tell you that I'm happy with my life. I am OK."

Contact Leanne Fuller, a Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8653.

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