Out of the junior high student's mouth came the tough questions.
The teen, teachers said, had an unsettled life, living here and then there. He seldom talked to anyone about anything. But in this auditorium in a Georgia junior high, he looked right at Kelly Blanton, of Taylorsville, N.C., and spoke up.
Blanton sat before him in a wheelchair, the result of a spinal cord accident suffered when her horse bucked her off in a practice arena in July 2011 during the International Finals Youth Rodeo in Shawnee.
“Do you think people treat you different now?” he asked.
Before she could answer, he added another, “Are you the same person you were before you got hurt?”
Blanton didn't go to the school for pity. She came for questions like this. She believed the questions came from his heart and knew the answers would come from hers.
“Yes, I am the same person, but some people don't treat me the same,” she said. “Some people who knew me before treat me differently because they knew the Kelly who could do whatever I put my mind to.”
True, she can't do that physically. But there's still a lot that Blanton, 19, can accomplish when she puts her mind to it. Such as when she got off the ventilator in April or her plans to leave in August to attend North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.
Going to North Carolina State was part of her plans for life when she arrived in Shawnee for the rodeo two years ago.
Before and after
Before the accident, Blanton was involved in her church youth group, had served as the FFA president her senior year and was all-conference on the tennis team her senior year. She also threw the discus in track and field. But she really loved animals and wanted to study in the animal science program at North Carolina State.
But on July 11, 2011, while preparing to compete at the International Finals Youth Rodeo, Blanton was bucked off her horse. She had no movement from the sternum down.
However, her mind is now set on picking up where she left off on that dream, with a few variations. She took some classes in fall 2012 at a community college to make sure she could handle the college life. She determined it was possible.
Blanton may pursue a double-major at North Carolina State, studying animal science and psychology. The latter comes from life after the accident.
“I might want to be a counselor, counseling people with spinal cord injuries and brain injuries. I was inspired by my counselor at the Shepherd Center,” Blanton said, referring to the rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta. “She is always so easy to talk to.”
Blanton is easy to talk to as well. That's why she agreed to visit two junior highs in Georgia to talk to students about how they need to think before they act. For example, the time will come when they will be allowed to drive. And if they choose to text while driving, that decision could leave them or someone else with spinal cord or brain injuries or worse, she said.
“You really don't hear a lot about spinal cord injuries,” Blanton said. “I think if I had, I would have thought differently about some of the choices I made.”
She's not saying she would change her choice to rodeo. She loved it and loves horses.
“I just want them to think about what could happen and to be safe in whatever they do,” she said.
She's made adjustments
A year ago, she returned to Shawnee to see friends and countless supporters from Oklahoma, who continue to be close to Blanton.
At that point, she could move her right arm and the fingers on that side with the exception of her index finger. Although unable to drive her chair with her right hand, her arm was getting strong. She could move her right leg some. And her goal was weaning off the ventilator.
In February, she was off the ventilator during the day. Then she took it off her chair at Easter and since April, she has been off it day and night.
She has a diaphragmatic pacing system that helps her breathe.
Still, the big improvements don't come as often as they did the first year.
So she's adjusted. She's set her mind on dealing with Monday on Monday, Tuesday on Tuesday and so on.
Her mother, Geri Blanton said, “She's buckling down to the realization, ‘I've got to use what I've got right now and if something comes back it comes back.'”
Kelly Blanton added, “I do take it day by day, because some things happen during the day that makes them bad days. You just kind of have to handle it as the day goes by.”
The mother and daughter share a friendship and faith. Rather than asking to be delivered from the storm, they're learning to live in it.
“You can tell she does appreciate being able to talk to people, being able to help somebody,” Geri said. “She's had several people tell her ‘You may have an avenue where you could be in a big hospital and be a counselor.'
“People listen to her. Like that little guy at the junior high in Georgia.”