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Turning pain to gain

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BARTLETT — More than 18 years ago, 20-year-old Dale Spencer of Bartlett tripped and fell by a set of railroad tracks while taking a shortcut to a party at Northern Illinois University.

The 40-foot plunge left Spencer with a spinal cord injury, paralyzing him from the waist down for the rest of his life.

And even though Spencer always will see his days from a wheelchair, this U46 board member has taken his tragedy and given it a positive spin. He now gives motivational speeches to local middle schools and high schools through the ThinkFirst Injury Prevention Foundation, a national group that works to prevent injuries through education, research, and legislative policy.

Spencer aims to inspire youths to act responsibly by preventing personal vulnerability and risk taking — particularly about the dangers of drunken driving, road rage, gun violence, and diving injuries, which Spencer said cause the majority of spinal cord injuries.

“What I do is go to high schools and middle schools and spread the message of injury prevention — we tell kids to use your mind to protect your body,” said Spencer, who has spoken to more than 10,000 youngsters over the past 12 years. “Kids are at an impressionable age where they think they’re invincible and they take risks. Statistics show that most of these injuries — freak injuries, drinking-and-driving crashes, gun violence, diving injuries — happen between the ages of 15 and 24. We deliver the message when they’re younger so they have that message in the back of their minds.”
Teaching from experience
The lessons he has learned from his preventable injury is what he wants students to absorb.

“I don’t take my life for granted. It taught me what was important in life — taking care of yourself, not only physically but mentally. I also learned that friends and family are there for you to depend on and rely on,” said Spencer, who finished his degree at NIU in 1991 and works today as an insurance broker. “If people are willing to listen to you, I have valuable information to share with them. I’m suffering the consequences of a preventable situation and I want to help kids out through my experiences.”

And a local injury-prevention expert chimed in, saying it’s people like Spencer who really get under the skin of students. But it’s up to the children to own up to their choices.

“When someone rolls into their classroom with a wheelchair and they hear from someone how their life has changed and how drastic that change is — it really hits home,” said Debby Gerhardstein, a nurse at Central DuPage Hospital and ThinkFirst Illinois chapter director. “You can really feel it through the whole classroom.

“It’s up to them (kids) to prevent injury,” she said. “They cannot blame it on peer pressure. It’s something they have to take responsibility for — it’s their body, it’s their life.

“We’re trying to take people beyond the mentality of trying to get out of a ticket. We’re trying to get them to understand the bigger picture,” Gerhardstein continued. “Are you going to hurt someone else and live with the guilt? Are you willing to kill someone else when you go behind the wheel after a few drinks?”
Actions can hurt others
But too often young people don’t think about the repercussions of their actions.

In late October, Shelley Dogra, a 26-year-old man from Wheaton, pleaded guilty to aggravated drunken driving for a May 2005 crash near West Chicago that killed his three passengers, including two of his cousins, who were 22 and 28.

And in November, five teens were injured in a Palos Hills crash after authorities said Terrance Jones, 20, of Hickory Hills, lost control of his vehicle at more than 75 mph. He was charged with DUI, a felony count of aggravated fleeing and eluding, driving with a suspended license, disobeying a stop sign, improper lane use, and illegal transportation of alcohol.

In early December, Luis Vega, 18, of Bolingbrook was driving a vehicle that hit a semitrailer. Authorities said he had a blood-alcohol level more than three times Illinois’ legal limit of .08. The crash killed three 18-year-olds from Bolingbrook.

One U46 official said it’s catastrophes like these that have the strongest impact on students.

“Earlier this year, we had a car accident on (U.S.) Route 20 in which three of our kids were killed at a high rate of speed. There were no drugs or alcohol involved according to police records,” said district spokeswoman Kris Houser, who said there’s an ongoing effort at local high schools to combat preventable injuries. “I think it’s an incident like this one which really heightens the awareness of students.”

Despite irresponsible choices and irreversible crashes, Spencer still hopes his message reaches a few students.

“I know I’m not going to reach 100 percent of the students — some people aren’t going to listen,” said Spencer, who recently made a video at Bartlett High School to teach traumatic brain injury and spinal chord injury victims to speak effectively to high school audiences. The video was funded by the Christopher Reeve Foundation and will be distributed nationally in March.

Regardless, it’s those few youths, whose minds are sideswiped by the tragedy, who keep Spencer going.

“I’ve had students come up to me in the class and they tell me they understand why I was there — it really hits them,” Spencer continues. “I think that’s great — that makes it so worth it.”

By Erin Calandriello STAFF WRITER

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