This is the story of courage. This is a story of tenacity. This is the story of Hill Daniel.
Daniel, a 21-year-old senior at LaGrange College, will be graduating next week with a degree in psychology after a distinguished college career in which he served as president of the Student Government Association, a Presidential Student Ambassador, a youth soccer coach and an intern with the Troup County Drug Court.
Hill Daniel is also a paraplegic.
On Nov., 12, 2008, while returning from a youth group gathering at his church, the Monroe County native fishtailed the car he was driving on a gravel road and overturned. His younger brother, Matthew, got out with a cut behind his ear. Hill was not so lucky. He was trapped and had to be cut out by the local EMTs, who realized immediately the severity of his injury and transported him to the trauma unit at the Medical Center in Macon.
Forty-eight hours later, he was at the renowned Shepherd Center in Atlanta for surgery. Spinal cord damage had left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was 17 years old at the time and Christmas was a month away.
His father, Jackson Daniel, assistant superintendent of support services in the Monroe County school system, told me the family was planning to bring a Christmas tree to Shepherd. Hill told them not to bother. He said he would be home for Christmas.
He was as good as his word. The young man began rehabilitation therapy three days after his surgery and the staff at the Shepherd Center let him go home for Christmas, although he was to come back for more surgery after the holidays.
Hill returned to Mary Persons High School in Forsyth to finish his senior year. He was named captain of the soccer team. (His dad said he was announced in the starting lineup at each game his senior year.) During spring break, father and son traveled with a school group to Italy and France for eight days. Jackson Daniel called it “a most difficult trip but one that made us realize that if we could do that just five months into his injury, we could do anything.”
In July, 2009, Hill secured two additional merit badges and with the help and support of members of Scout Troop 101 attained the rank of Eagle Scout.
I called this amazing young man in LaGrange last week to congratulate him on his upcoming graduation and to see how he had managed to accomplish so much after such a life-altering experience. He gives high marks to the good people at the Shepherd Center for their role in his difficult transition.
“The Shepherd Center created a new life for me,” he said. “They molded me from who I was into who I am today.”
I am sure the Shepherd Center staff would tell you that Hill Daniel gave them a lot to work with.
What has he learned since that fateful November night?
“During high school, things came easy to me and always seem to fall in place,” he says. “Now I realize that life can be difficult but our only limitations are the ones we put on ourselves. I know we can be as successful as we want to be but we have to work hard at it. My situation has taught me to never give up on yourself. Find something you like to do, do it the best you can and you can be happy.”
Remember that advice the next time you start feeling sorry for yourself. Life is what we make of it and Hill Daniel has set the bar high for us all.
In what is a wonderful coda to this story, the commencement speaker at LaGrange College’s graduation ceremonies on May 18 will be James Shepherd, chairman of the board of the Shepherd Center, who will also receive an honorary degree. I suspect Mr. Shepherd would say that seeing Hill Daniel graduate after having overcome so much at such a young age and knowing the role the Shepherd Center played in this remarkable story might be honor enough.
On another subject: I am mourning the loss of Jerry Wansley today. Not only was he a friend but he and I had the privilege of serving as co-grandfathers to the Wansley boys, Zack and Nick. Jerry and I have grieved together and rejoiced together. I am honored to have made the journey with him. God bless him and his memory.
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.