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Westchase Rallies While Joey Johnston Battles On

It has been nearly two months since my son’s catastrophic accident, which landed him in the hospital with a broken neck and back, then sent us to an Atlanta specialized facility for extended rehabilitation. Then and now, Joey has voiced an almost daily request: “I just want to go home.’’

Home.

Yes, I agree. That sounds very good.

For Joey, soon to be 16, Westchase has always been home. It’s his personal playground, his sanctuary, his world.

I think his bicycle has covered each square inch of The Shires, where we live, but also every nearby street, village, store or restaurant. The neighbors all know Joey, including the older folks and younger kids. So do all the lawn guys and pool guys, the Publix baggers, the McDonald’s drive-thru workers and the folks behind the 7-Eleven counter.

He has fished the lakes and ponds, gotten all forms of playthings stuck in the shady oak trees, worn out the equipment at Glencliff Park, swam the pools, beaten his dad (not often) at driveway hoops and learned how to hit a ball over the street, into the neighbors’ yard and ultimately onto their roof (we had to stop and find a field).

He has provided his share of humor, insight and exasperation for all the teachers and staff at Westchase Elementary School, Davidsen Middle School and Alonso High School. He loves the Rays, the Bucs, the Lightning, the USF Bulls, the Florida Gators, the Alonso Ravens and his enduring kinship with Keystone Little League.

He knows just one hometown. He knows just one house.

In the last year, Joey announced his plans to take the “Derbyshire’’ street sign and bring it to his college dorm room. I gently reminded him that no, actually that wouldn’t be happening that because it’s against the law.

“But if I go away to college, I still want to have Derbyshire with me,’’ Joey said.

Childhood fun is the best. I’ve always been supremely motivated to provide great experiences for Joey—and we certainly have enjoyed our share of memorable moments.

Now this.

On July 8, Joey the daredevil, along with some buddies, decided it would be fun to try a backflip off a bridge. That decision has rocked our world. Joey broke his neck and back when the leap went terribly wrong, sending him to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and now to an extended stay at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

Amid the tragedy, we have all felt such love, compassion and togetherness from our Westchase friends. Joey still has no real idea about the level of support from his community, his school, his hometown and all the people who have just accidentally stumbled upon his story.

But for the rest of us—myself, Joey’s mother Angela and the immediate family—it has been staggering.

We have felt the love. We have been inspired by his courage and perspective. And although the road back looks excruciatingly long—with the final destination unpredictable—we know one thing for sure.

We’re so grateful that Joey is alive. He could have easily drowned, but he was spared and saved, mostly because his buddy Danny jumped first and helped bring him to the surface. We’re thankful that his brain and head were unharmed, giving him a huge advantage in recovery.

We’re indebted to the doctors, nurses, therapists and staff at All Children’s Hospital and the Shepherd Center. We should have already known this, but we have been reminded that these people are true angels.

Whatever happens moving forward, I think we will be forever changed.

Entering July 8, Joey was a devil-may-care, somewhat reckless 15-year-old. He’s scheduled to get his driver’s license in October. We constantly have to watch him and remind him of safety and making good decisions. He has taken crazy chances—like a lot of 15-year-old boys—and mostly made it through. Now he has made a choice with huge consequences.

Here’s my theory: God saw a kid who thought he was invincible and maybe untouchable. Could an accident be prevented from above? Yeah, sure. But a lesson had to be learned. Maybe that was the only way Joey could get back on the right path.

Something special already has happened. We have noticed a softening, a sense of perspective, a realization that he got a second chance. He has spoken about helping people. He has spoken about helping his peers make better decisions.

These might be small things, but I see a glimmer of insight, empathy and gratitude that was not there before. I see a different path. I see hope. This has been about so much more than healing Joey’s body.

I see a potentially extraordinary life.

That’s the long-term view. In the short term, of course, it’s a grind, a daily battle and a test of character. Joey has largely led the parade, teaching us all how to be brave.

Joey got off to a great start at Alonso, successfully navigating that large, new freshman world, earning a spot on the varsity baseball team and earning a 4.2 grade-point average. He badly wants a return to all of that.

Doctors were incredibly encouraging about Joey’s early rehabilitation, predicting he can accomplish just about anything, including an independent life. Spinal cord injuries remain a mystery. Huge odds have been beaten before. We’re not closing the door on anything.

It seems especially cruel that a five-minute decision can so drastically change a life (or lives), but that’s the reality. What happened can’t be changed. We can only control the reaction and adjustment to what lies ahead.

It’s a long time in coming, but our homecoming will be very sweet. We will return to the love of family and friends, a love we feel every day from afar.

For that, there’s so much we can say. For now, only one thing seems to fit:

Thank you!

By Joey Johnston

Joey Johnston, Sr., has been a longtime writer for WOW and resident of The Shires.

How to Contribute to Joey’s Recovery

Many members of the Westchase community and beyond have asked how they can help Joey's family in their time of need. In response, a GoFundMe page was set up by WOW staff to benefit the Johnstons. All donations, after GoFundMe's roughly three percent collection fee, will go directly to the family, allowing them to care for Joey. To donate, visit http://www.gofundme.com/joey-johnston039s-recovery (WOW .staff thanks everyone who has already generously donated.)

Those who would like to make a private donation can send that directly to Joey’s aunt, Joanne Westmoreland, at 10411 Brentford Dr., Tampa, FL 33626. Joanne will personally deliver all gifts and monetary donations to the family. Checks should be made payable to Joey Johnston. Because the family is currently living in a hotel in Atlanta while Joey undergoes treatment at the renowned Shepherd Center, donations of Visa gift cards, or cards to stores like Publix and Target, would also be appreciated.

Another great way to show support is by purchasing a #gameon4Joey T-shirt ($10) and a "Prayers for Joey" silicone bracelet ($5). These items will be available for order for two weeks only, Sept. 1-15. Orders can be place at https://prayersforjoey2018.itemorder.com/ with 100 percent of the proceeds donated to Joey Johnston's recovery fund. Please note that once the two-week ordering window closes, all items will be produced and shipped. Orders are expected to deliver by the end of September. Silicone bracelets are also available for purchase locally at Belanova Salon.

If you are not doing so already, be sure to follow Joey’s progress on the Facebook page, Prayers for Joey.

By Karen Ring

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