About 1800 Ankeny High School students stream into the gym, for what seems to be an ordinary high school assemby. There’s rough-housing and laughter, just like you’d expect during a pep-rally or awards ceremony. But this is not your typical assembly.
“Today, we’re here for a different reason,” says principal, Jeff Hawkins.
Today, the kids are here to listen to a story about life, death and forgiveness. Today, they’ll listen to three people who share a similar story, but very different perspectives.
Jenny Miller knows all too well that a phone call can change your life. She hasn’t been the same since she received a phone call from the hospital on May 21, 2011. Neither has Karla Rogen’s.
“It was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever been through,” says Karla.
Both women lost what they loved most, their children. Kip Rogen was Karla’s only son.
“He was the light of our lives.”
Connor Miller was Jenny’s oldest.
“He loved life.”
The boys grew up together and died together in a car accident on May 21, 2011.
“When I first got the phone call from the hospital I was not expecting what we walked into at the hospital,” says Jenny. “We had to make some very hard decisions.”
Connor died six hours later. Kip never made it to the hospital.
“I get to the hospital and I ask for my son and they didn’t give me any information,” says Karla. “And somebody came out of the back and I said I’m looking for my son and they said, ‘he’s not here, um he didn’t make it.’ And I had to go identify him over at the morgue. And the worst thing ever is to go into a cold place and not be able to take your child home with you.”
Alcohol and drugs were not factors in the accident, but speed was, which brings us back to that high school assembly.
Frank Severino, assistant Polk County Attorney is the first to address the audience.
“I think it’s very important for you to understand they hit that pole traveling at approximately a hundred miles per hour.”
The driver of the car, Sam Wilkens was 16 at the time. He survived the crash, but was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide.
“Can you imagine what it’s like to wake up in the hospital and find out that you’ve killed your two best friends?” asks Severino.
Sam knows exactly what that’s like.
“It takes an incredible amount of courage for him to be here,” says Severino as Sam approaches the podium.
Speaking to his peers is his way of making amends for his mistake and hopefully, making a difference.
“My life will never be the same,” says Sam. “I can’t bring my friends back, but I hope I can perhaps save a life by talking to you.”
Sam talks about a single mistake that changed his life forever. He talks about the dangers of speeding and reckless driving. It’s a powerful message, but there’s a more profound lesson being taught by Sam, Jenny and Karla.
“The parents were angry and sick with grief, but amazingly they were really concerned about me,” says Sam. “That is the power of forgiveness. They dug deep for that inner strength and that gave them power over their lives.”
Jenny and Karla continue to dig deep. They are Sam’s most unlikely allies, there by his side, telling their stories too. They are the first to offer hugs after his speech.
“I can’t turn my back on him. He took something – one of the best things from me in my life that I can’t ever replace,” says Jenny. “But I’m proud of what Sam has done out of this tragedy.”
“Taking my only child, it’s been hard for me,” says Karla.
It is not easy – forgiveness never is.
NOTE: Karla Rogen is on a mission to change Iowa’s laws. She want lawmakers to limit the number of teen passengers allowed to ride with a teen driver. 15 states and the District of Columbia currently prohibit teenagers from driving with another teen. All but seven states prohibit them from driving with more than one.