By Gracie Fairfax | Echo
Whitney (Cerak) Wheeler ('09) recently returned from youth group, where she leads a group of fun, easily distracted middle school girls. Her three kids are now in bed and the house is quiet. As an army wife and the mother of three young children under the age of five, life is busy, but it looks far different than anyone would have expected it to look 10 years ago.
On April 26, 2006, Whitney was thought to have been killed in a Taylor University van accident on I-69-an accident that claimed the lives of four students and one employee. Following Whitney's funeral service and burial, information surfaced that Whitney had been involved in a case of mistaken identity that gained nationwide attention, as she had been initially identified as Laura Van Ryn.
She spent the summer recovering in the hospital and went home at the beginning of August, where she began physical therapy. Later that August, her entry back into the Taylor community posed challenges. After gaining nationwide media attention, Wheeler was recognizable to students across campus, even to incoming freshmen she'd never met. She remained guarded, worried that people might try to take advantage of the relationship.
"It was tough socially and mentally," Whitney said.
Her voice, which she described as "hardly above a whisper," made it difficult to participate in larger groups.
Despite the difficulties she faced, Taylor worked to make her transition back into college life smooth.
"Taylor was incredible," Whitney said.
The university lessened her credit hours and allowed her to take tests differently, but still considered her full time. Scott Gaier, director of the Academic Enrichment Center, among others, was instrumental in her academic success as he helped her with every test.
At the time, she was still doing therapy in Fort Wayne. Family friends Kathy and Tim Herrmann drove her back and forth from therapy many times.
"The accident happening and the mix-up happening is a turning point in my life," Whitney said. "I could have just lived a typical life or I could have gone on fire for Christ. I wanted to go on fire for him and to live my every minute for him, do whatever I can to please him . . . not because I feel guilty or feel that pressure, but I feel like I truly see now."
At Taylor, Whitney was a psychology major. Initially she chose psychology because she thought it was interesting, but later she had thoughts of using it for counseling underprivileged people.
During the summer before her senior year, Whitney went to Kenya for her psychology practicum. There she worked with street children, alongside her sister, who had lived there for a couple of years.
"It just felt right to me," Whitney said concerning her practicum and decision to study psychology. "I like to be around people. I like to talk to people. And so I knew that's what I wanted to do."
Following graduation, Whitney returned to Kenya with her sister for a year to work with street people. It was the first time she remembers truly seeing poverty. The impact that first experience had on her inspired her to return a second time.
"There was the genuine love of the people. I loved them. They loved me. It felt very genuine," Whitney said. "But then just seeing the need of all of them and how they literally had nothing . . . but they still had a smile on their face."
In 2010, following her year in Kenya, she married Matt Wheeler, a graduate of Olivet Nazarene University.
Matt and Whitney were in the same sixth-grade class together.
"Actually, we didn't date at all through high school, but we were neighbors and best friends," Whitney said. "We started dating when we went to college."
She was ready to get married in 2010, but navigating the relationship following the accident had its struggles.
Matt and Whitney's sister, Carly, both worked at SpringHill during the summer following the accident and drove down every weekend to spend time with her.
"And then school came and I definitely gave him too much time when I needed to focus more on school and being social," Whitney said. "I had a lot of figuring out to do and figuring out again who I was, instead of just Matt's girlfriend. I needed space. I needed to figure out things."
There was a lot of pressure, at the time, to marry Matt because he had been with her through an incredibly difficult and significant time in her life. He even spoke at her funeral.
Despite the pressure that came with figuring out her identity following the accident, Whitney described Matt as loyal. He had known her since middle school, was by her side during the accident and is someone she doesn't have to explain what she's been through to.
"Even now, even 10 years later, if I go through emotions or something coming up from the accident, he knows what's going on," Whitney said. "I don't have to explain things to him from my past. He knows what's going on."
Matt, who is in the army, was deployed a month after they moved to Kentucky as newlyweds. Nine months later, he returned, and less than a year later, their first child, Zachary, was born.
A month after becoming a father, Matt was unexpectedly deployed again.
"It was really hard. That deployment came out of nowhere and it shocked everyone . . . I think I didn't have enough confidence in myself," Whitney said. "I had just turned 25 and then I had two dogs and then I had a baby and my husband (was) leaving . . . I don't think I had a lot of confidence in being a mom. It was very new and very scary to me."
She moved to her hometown, Gaylord, Michigan, for nine months to be with her family. Since the couple grew up together, Matt's family was right down the street.
Through this time, she learned the importance of the source of her joy.
"I learned that my joy did not come from people, but came from Christ and Christ alone," Whitney said. "When he was deployed, I had no joy . . . . I needed to fix that."
Whitney and Matt now have three children, Zachary, 4, Rebecca, 2, and Samantha, 1.
She describes Zach, who just started pre-school, as being just like her husband.
"He's a lot bolder than a lot of 4-year-olds," Whitney said. "He walked over to our neighbor's house who just moved in a week ago, introduced himself and started playing with their boys."
Her second child, Rebecca, she describes as "so funny, very caring and just the sweetest." Samantha, who is one, is "the most laid-back, but most dramatic girl I've ever seen. She laughs and smiles at us," Whitney said.
There were times when Whitney felt stressed because she wasn't working, but when a friend asked her what she'd rather be doing, she couldn't give an answer.
After the accident, her faith radically changed and affects the way she lives today.
"It's so different. It's real and it's deep now," Whitney said. "Before, I was a good Christian girl who would go to church and went to Christian events, but I don't feel like it was real . . . now I feel like if you took Jesus out of me, you'd be taking all of me. There wouldn't be anything left."
She loves to tell her kids about Jesus and incorporate ministry into the everyday lives of her family. She and her family visit a nearby neighborhood of government housing at least once a week to play with the kids, teach a lesson and eat popsicles together. In the past, they also put on a night church in the same neighborhood. On Wednesday nights, she volunteers with the youth group while her children attend AWANA, a children's Bible school. They love to talk to their neighbors about Christ and pray for people's healing.
Whitney is currently embracing life as a mother and is still figuring out what it looks like to talk to her children about the accident.
Her son was somewhat familiar with the accident, but when he saw his mom in the Taylor magazine, he asked about it.
"It's weird to have to explain it to him . . . . It's weird to me that it still comes up," Whitney said. "It's just encouraging to see how the Lord is using the accident now, even 10 years later."
Some may see the accident as her entire identity. Looking back, although she considers the accident a turning point in her walk with the Lord, she does not find her identity in what happened to her, but in Christ.
"I feel like a lot of it is the start of my story," Whitney said. "It's not me, it's just the start."
The article above is part of a series of pieces regarding the 10-year anniversary of the 2006 van accident. To read the other articles in the series, please click on the hyperlinks below.