A year ago, Alyssa Barnhart was coasting through life under the mistaken belief, “It can’t happen to me.”
She was sitting on a hill behind Carlisle High School not paying close attention to the mock accident demonstration taking place the day before her senior prom in May 2016.
Instead, Barnhart was chatting up friends and fiddling with her phone. She had heard it all before from the speakers brought in by Justin Kretzing, the drivers’ education teacher.
On alternating years, he would organize an assembly or mock crash to raise awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving, driving while texting and not buckling up.
Graduation for Barnhart was weeks away. Like many teenagers, she thought herself invincible.
Five months later, on Oct. 12, she was seriously injured in an auto accident in York County and her dream of being an emergency medical technician was shattered.
Barnhart was not distracted by her cellphone. She had no alcohol or drugs in her system. She was not texting. She almost died after experiencing a severe headache, blacking out and hitting a tree head-on.
The trauma broke seven bones from her waist down and compressed a vertebra in her back. Luckily, Barnhart would walk again — right into the high school auditorium on Thursday with a message.
“I was wearing my seat belt that day,” she told them. “It prevented me from going through my windshield or going anywhere else. They had to cut me out of my car. I never thought it could happen to me.”
The accident convinced Barnhart to live each day to the fullest. She plans to attend Shippensburg University in the fall to study to become a special education teacher.
For an hour Thursday afternoon, speakers donated their time in the hope of reaching Carlisle High School students to prevent them from becoming a statistic. None of the speakers expected the worst, but they all learned to work through it.
Jodi Bales remembered how her daughter Alicia Nicholson looked as though she was wearing shoulder pads underneath her burial clothes. “It was her sternum,” Bales said. Her child’s body had to be cut open for the autopsy.
Nicholson, 23, a 2011 graduate of Boiling Springs High School, died on Feb. 6, 2016, after her car was struck broadside by another driver who was charged with failure to stop at an intersection because she was texting.
“She was broken,” Bales said of Nicholson, who left behind a husband and two daughters. “It was multiple blunt force trauma. … She was dead on impact.”
Instead of gathering as a family to enjoy a Super Bowl party, Bales spent the weekend calling relatives and making funeral arrangements. The last time she saw her daughter she was in a casket.
Her message to students Thursday was to avoid texting while driving. She urged them to support legislation barring it and to educate their family and friends. She mentioned an app that delays notification of incoming text messages while the person is behind the wheel.
“There is no such thing as multitasking,” Bales told students. “Five seconds and they are gone.”
Missy Sweitzer of Glen Rock, York County, talked about the dangers of drinking and driving. Her 20-year-old son Zac was seriously injured in a DUI-related accident on Nov. 27, 2008. He was declared brain dead three days later.
When Sweitzer saw her son at York Hospital, he looked peaceful, almost as if he was sleeping. His head was heavily bandaged. He had a bit of road rash, but Zac was not as bruised, battered or swollen as she had imagined he would be.
Then she noticed how his chest rose and fell in time with the breathing machine that kept him alive. Her last farewell was a goodbye kiss and the act of pulling a blanket over his head in the coffin. “He was in the prime of his life,” she told the students.
Sweitzer lost her son to a 19-year-old woman who was drinking with her husband before she climbed into a car and drove early Thanksgiving morning.
“Every day we are faced with decisions,” Sweitzer told the students. “There are repercussions to every one of our decisions. Her decision took my son’s life. Her decision took a huge part of her life. She is now a felon convicted of vehicular homicide. That felony charge will follow her the rest of her life.”