Kelly Schaefer: A story that had to be told

Photo courtesy David Pierini
Shawn Schaefer dipped his new bride, the former Kelly Craig, during their wedding reception Sept. 6, 2009, in French Lick. Kelly will read excerpts from her new memoir detailing the 1999 crash that left her paralyzed at the Will Read and Sing For Food show Saturday. For more photos from Kelly's journey, click here.

By LEANN BURKE
Herald Staff Writer

“Nights were the worst, and darkness my enemy, dragging on forever, especially when my cries went unanswered and I didn’t get turned. I coped by praying. ‘Oh God, steer my thoughts in another direction so I won’t focus on my discomfort.” — Fractured Not Broken

After an accident left a teenage Kelly (Craig) Schaefer a quadriplegic 16 years ago, the Jasper native struggled the most with accepting that she could no longer do simple acts for herself, like roll over in bed at night when she got uncomfortable. She was 19 when the accident on a Colorado vacation changed the lives of her and her brother, Jason, 17, at the time. In the time since, she’s rerouted her life in her hometown by finding inspiration and becoming one herself.

Now 35 years old, married and working as a teacher, she revealed her inner thoughts and struggles earlier this month when she released her memoir, “Fractured Not Broken.”

Erica Lafser/The Herald
Kelly and Shawn watched television together Friday night at their Jasper home.

“Up ahead, the dark sky glowed from Durango’s city lights. Our car climbed and twisted with the road. Then in an instant — in the time it took me to inhale — a pair of headlights, one dim light and one bright one, crossed the centerline, and grazed the back end of Stephanie’s (ranch hand) truck. Her truck swerved. Bodies spilled onto the road like watermelon off a produce truck. I held my breath. The headlights careened toward us. Closer. Closer. Someone screamed. Others told me later the screams were mine.”

Several years after the accident, Schaefer’s aunt, author Michelle Weidenbenner, approached her about pairing to write a book about the accident and how Schaefer had adjusted to life as a quadriplegic. Since the accident, Schaefer had competed and won Miss Strassenfest 2000. She’d begun a career as a public speaker, teaching students about the effects of drunk driving, and she’d gone back to school at University of Southern Indiana in Evansville to get her degree in elementary education.

“I felt like the story needed to be told,” Weidenbenner said. “I’d been working on another novel at the time, and I just felt like I was called by God to put that aside and work on this one.”

The book puts readers in the car that night with Schaefer as the drunk driver sped toward her car, lets them follow her from hospital to hospital and leads them through the struggle Schaefer faced as she adjusted to life in a wheelchair and accepted that she would likely never walk again. Weidenbenner obtained police reports from the night of the accident and court documents from the drunk driver’s trial in 2000. She interviewed first responders and used the interviews to construct chapters of the memoir from the responders’ perspectives.

Weidenbenner’s research showed Schaefer details of the accident she hadn’t known and drudged up memories she’d struggled to leave in the past. It had been years since the accident, but working on the book took Schaefer back to the months after it.

Kelly received assistance as she went through walking motions on a treadmill during therapy. Herald file photos by David Pierini. For more photos from Kelly's journey, click here.

“It just was a little more difficult than I thought,” Schaeffer said. “It was more emotional than I thought, and I lost interest in it.”

In the months after the accident, Schaefer was sure she’d walk again, in spite of many medical staff members saying it may not happen. When her mom, Brenda, and stepdad, Andy Krempp, remodeled their home to accommodate Schaefer, she got angry. She struggled to adjust to being unable to get a drink of water, get dressed or bathe without someone to help her.

“No one ever talked about those moments, the private and ordinary moments every able-bodied person took for granted.”

She continued therapy at Memorial Hospital in Jasper and eventually regained some use of her left hand. She’d been right-handed before. She began painting pineapples, her favorite thing to doodle in school. When she got better, she began giving friends and family her paintings, the only sign of improved mobility.

Schaefer enrolled at USI in August 2000 and continued working toward her degree in elementary education. She and others around her doubted her ability to teach, so she briefly switched to a communications major, thinking that would help with her public speaking. She hated it. After only two weeks, she switched back to elementary education.

“I said, ‘You know what, this accident has defined enough of my life,” Schaefer said. “I just had to see for myself if I could do it.”

Despite her determination, the doubts lingered, both from herself and those around her.

“My physical fitness class was held in the campus gym ... The teacher walked in and said hello, then turned to me. ‘Are you in this class?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘They let you register for this class?’ I nodded. ‘How am I supposed to teach you? We’ll be doing physical activities. I don’t mean any disrespect, but there’s been a mistake. How can I teach you if you can’t participate? ... You need to go back to scheduling and see if you can take another class in place of this one.’ She ushered me to the doors, opened them, and weaved for me to leave. I wheeled away seething at her lack of tact. She’d made up her mind that I was unteachable without giving me a chance. It made me more determined. I went directly to the Dean of Students ... I ended up with an A in her class.”

Kelly included a slide show with her speeches about the 1999 accident that killed the driver of the car she was riding in and left her brother Jason living with the lingering effects of a closed-head injury.  For more photos from Kelly's journey, click here.

Schaefer was a student teacher in Kathy Wolf’s third grade class at Precious Blood Catholic School in Jasper in the spring of 2004. For her, it was the ideal placement. Her faith had grown exponentially since her accident, and she wanted to be able to incorporate that faith in the classroom. On her first day, she introduced herself and showed the students how her wheelchair worked. Then, she asked if they had anything to ask her and was flooded with questions. “What’s your favorite color?” “What’s your favorite food?” “Do you like candy?” Not one asked about the accident or life as a quadriplegic. The kids helped her and relished the opportunity to play teacher, writing sentences on the board and passing out papers for her. At times she still doubted she’d be able to convince a school to hire her after graduation, but student teaching showed Schaefer that she could teach.

At the same time she student taught, Schaefer won the Ms. Indiana Wheelchair Pageant. The program focuses on finding a woman who can be a spokesperson for disabled people, and at the national pageant in August, she met seven other women who were confined to wheelchairs, some since birth, and having experiences that seemed impossible to Kelly — dating, dancing and driving a vehicle. The contestant from Texas, Angela Wrigglesworth, taught third grade. When she learned Schaefer doubted her ability to teach, she spent the week offering encouragement.

A former Jasper High School and Indiana University cheerleader, Kelly helped coach girls for cheerleader tryouts at Jasper Middle School in the spring of 2000. For more photos from Kelly's journey, click here.

“I rolled away empowered by the other women and by what they’d taught me — I didn’t have to let the wheelchair define me or control what I did with my life. I could make the chair a big deal if I wanted to, but it didn’t have to be me. The others were far more comfortable with who they were. I needed to feel the same. If I couldn’t embrace myself, how would I attract someone to love me? You have to love yourself, Kelly, before anyone else will love you.”

Although Schaefer made her dream of teaching come true, she still had a hope that seemed impossible — falling in love and having a family. The young man she’d been dating at the time of the accident left her four months after. They’d been dating for three years, and Schaefer thought they’d marry. If he couldn’t love her as a quadriplegic, she wasn’t sure anyone else would either. Eventually, she moved on, but the doubts lingered. One night during a Young Life Bible study, Schaefer led with friend Blayr Kramer, the doubts reached the surface. The group watched a video about a little boy who begged his dad for a Transformer toy, insisting that the dad would buy the toy if he really loved his son, but the father refused to get the toy because he knew it wouldn’t truly make him happy. The boy represented people and the father represented God. After the video, the women shared what “toy” they were waiting for. Schaefer realized hers was someone to love.

“I want to meet someone to share my life with, but no one is going to find me in this condition. Tears filled my eyes. God loved like the little boy in the movie, but it was tough not to feel the same way as the child. I’ve been in three weddings in the last four months. I paused to suck in a breath. What about me? When will it be my turn? If I could walk, I could find a boyfriend, a man whom I could marry, which would lead to having a family. All my life I’ve wanted children. If I can’t walk, I’ll never find a man or have a family. Talking about my unspoken feelings unleashed buried emotions and tears fell and dampened my shirt.”

Kelly received hugs from students at Precious Blood School.  For more photos from Kelly's journey, click here.

Mere months after Schaefer shared her doubts at the Young Life meeting, her future husband, Shawn Schaefer, showed up on her doorstep — literally. He’d seen Kelly during an interview on ESPN several years before and been touched by her story. He’d searched for her phone number intermittently since. He wanted to offer encouragement and give her a letter he’d written after seeing the interview. In 2007, he worked as an accountant in St. Louis. He decided to divert to Jasper, just to see if he could find Kelly, on his way home from a business trip in Indianapolis. A chapter in “Fractured Not Broken,” written from Shawn’s perspective, describes how he stopped at Staples to make a copy of a phonebook page and met a cashier who knew Kelly. After Shawn showed the cashier the card, she told him where Kelly lived. When he got there, Shawn dropped the card and a jellybean-filled Easter egg, symbolic of his hunt for her, in the mailbox. Then he called his cousin, Andrew Fresenburg, who told him to go back and knock on the door. Kelly’s mother, Brenda Krempp, answered and took the egg and card to Kelly. When Kelly told her mom the stranger had included his phone number, Krempp insisted Kelly call and invite him over. She did.

“Even though I hadn’t met this man yet, this was the first time I felt like God was listening to my prayers and answering them. Or maybe it was the first time I’d taken the time to hear His reply.”

Kelly and Shawn were married Sept. 6, 2009. For more photos from Kelly's journey, click here.

The two continued to talk over email and on the phone, then Shawn came again for Kelly’s birthday. She showed him around Jasper. They visited the Riverwalk and went to Kelly’s classroom. Her students had written Shawn notes on the chalkboard, telling him how awesome Kelly was. Before he left that evening, he kissed her. They dated for a year, then Shawn proposed on the Riverwalk. They married Sept. 6, 2009.

A storybook ending for a story that had to be told.

Kelly and Weidenbenner resumed the book project about a year ago. This time, Kelly said, the process felt more therapeutic than emotional.

“I realized that everybody has a story, has something,” Kelly said. “If someone can identify with my something and feel hope from my something, that’s why I wrote it.”

Weidenbenner thinks Shawn played a part in getting Kelly to a place mentally where she could pursue the project.

“He was that missing link,” Weidenbenner said.

Kelly agrees.

“Finding Shawn and marrying Shawn made me feel whole and complete and worthy,” she said.

 

Will Read and Sing For Food

Kelly Schaefer will read excerpts from her memoir, “Fractured Not Broken,” at Will Read and Sing For Food on Saturday, July 25 at 7 p.m. at Shiloh Church in Jasper (moved from previously planned location at VUJC). Admission is $10, and proceeds from the show will benefit Friends of the Jasper Public Library.


Contact Leann Burke at lburke@dcherald.com.





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