Accident survivor knows hope: Student loses half her family and still calls God ‘good’

The music swelled and the final note of “It Is Well With My Soul” hung in the air before fading into silence. The guests quietly began to exit the sanctuary, passing the three coffins at the front as they went. A soft murmur echoed throughout the building as each guest graciously accepted a goodie bag upon his or her departure from the funeral.

Avery Schoenwald was there to witness the entire affair. But Avery was not a guest; she was a survivor.
Just one month prior all seemed right in the world as the six members of the Schoenwald family set off to Eldora, Colo. for a spur-of-the-moment ski vacation. The family eagerly anticipated hitting the slopes that weekend. They never made it.

At 5:55 a.m. on Feb. 16, 2008, the Schoenwalds’ van unexpectedly slammed into the back of another vehicle as it crested the top of a hill that dusky Saturday morning. The impact immediately killed the driver, Ken Schoenwald, before spinning the van across the median of Interstate 70. The battered vehicle was then hit by a semi-truck, killing 18-year-old Jenna Schoenwald and 13-year-old Jace Schoenwald.

“The first thing I remember was waking up and feeling a breeze, which is unnatural in a car,” said Avery as she reflected on the accident. “Then I realized that the side of the car had been torn off.”

When the first responders arrived at the scene of the accident, they initially attempted to extricate Avery from the wreckage. Avery, however, insisted that they tend to her sister Alyssa, first.

“Alyssa started freaking out,” Avery remembered. “She just kept saying that she couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see her, I could only hear her.”

The impact had pinned Alyssa underneath a car door, breaking her back, pelvis and femur. Meanwhile, Avery had sustained severe head trauma and “degloving,” meaning that most of the skin on her scalp had been torn from her skull. The impact had also crushed Avery’s pelvis and torn most of the skin from her right hand.

“The first responders kept saying, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’’’ Avery said. “The only thing I could say to calm them down was, ‘Listen, we’re all Christians, and I know where all of us are going. Everything is going to be okay. We all know where we’re going.’ And then I lost consciousness again.”

When the first responders arrived, they found that Avery’s mother, Janelle Schoenwald had been ejected from the vehicle and lay a mere foot from where the semi-truck had skidded after slamming into the van.

When the emergency medical technicians arrived, they extracted Avery and airlifted her to the Medical Center of Aurora South, while Janelle and Alyssa were airlifted to Swedish Medical Center.

Avery recalls the evening of the accident as the loneliest, most broken moment of her life.

“I was physically broken, emotionally broken, and spiritually broken,” said the 22-year-old. “I felt like I had nobody, but God’s peace was still with me there.”

The next morning, Avery was relocated and reunited with her mother and twin sister.

After weeks of prayer, surgery, ICU, and bed-rest in Denver, the Schoenwalds were relocated to a hospital in their home of Wichita, Kansas.

The funeral, which had over 2,000 people in attendance, took place on March 11.

Only a week before her death, Jenna had mentioned that she wanted her funeral to be a celebration, complete with balloons, cake, and goodie bags. For many days prior to the ceremony, the family packed goodie bags in the hospital and distributed them to over 2,000 people on the day of the funeral. Each goodie bag included candy and a tract about the Schoenwald family and their faith in Christ.

“Who survived and who didn’t — it was very random,” Avery said. “It wasn’t like the first front half [of the vehicle] died and the back half didn’t. No, God chose who He wanted to go and who He wanted to stay. I wish every day that I was the one who was taken because it’s a lot more pain having to live through it. It’s not fair that they got to go to heaven. But He chose who He wanted to take home, and that’s a comfort to me.”

Today, almost five years after the accident, this John Brown University education major admits that this experience has drawn her closer to the Lord, simply because she had no other choice.

“People look at my story and say, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re so strong.’ But honestly, I didn’t have any choice but to rely on God, because I didn’t have anything else,” Avery said. “I’m so weak that His strength is the only thing I can rely on.”

Laura Weeks, a friend of Avery’s, mentioned that one of Avery’s most significant attributes is her compassion for others, despite her own pain.

“Even though she’s been through a lot, she cares about other people,” Weeks said. “She takes things to heart and does whatever she can to make sure they are okay.”

Alyssa Schoenwald, a graphic and web design major at the University, is proud of her twin sister, saying, “We’ve always called her ‘Bravery Avery.’ She can pick herself up, acknowledge that she’s been hurt, and move on. She’ll just keep doing whatever she can, I think it’s something that God has given her.”

Since the accident, the most prominent lesson that Avery has learned is to praise God, regardless of her circumstances.

“We often pick through events in our life like a child picks petals off a flower to determine the love of a significant other,” Avery said. “We think God loves us more when good things happen in our life. Consequently, we think God doesn’t love us when bad things happen. ‘He gave me a loving family. He loves me! A family member gets sick. He loves me not. He provided for my family financially! He loves me. I got in a car accident. He loves me not.’ Instead, every petal we pick off the flower that is our life is ‘He loves me.’ ”

Avery admitted that choosing to believe the best of God is not always an easy task.

“This is a hard discipline to embrace considering how emotionally driven Christians are these days,” Avery said. “It takes living above our circumstances in order to proclaim the truth of God’s love, even when we don’t feel it.”

Avery reminds herself of this lesson on a daily basis.

“I have a sticky note above my bed that says, ‘If you praise God despite your feelings, then He will give you joy despite your circumstances,’ ” Avery said. “When I proclaim God’s goodness in the midst of tragedy, Satan begins to realize that there is nothing he can throw at me that will change the way I will praise God. We become most dangerous to Satan when we believe in God’s promises even when we don’t feel it.”

She admitted that although she has learned many things from her experiences, she doesn’t have everything figured out. She explained that she is still in a healing process, and she expects that she will be healing for the rest of her life.

“These lessons that I’m telling you are not something I’ve learned completely. I have to encourage myself every day.” Avery said.

Nevertheless, as Avery reflects on her life, she trusts God’s sovereignty above all else. She quoted a song by Babbie Mason during her talk at the gathering that has become the cry of her heart. “God is too wise to be mistaken. God is too good to be unkind. So when you don’t understand, when don’t see his plan, when you can’t trace his hand, Trust His Heart.”