When the lights came up in USD 408 Performing Arts Center on April 25 following the film “Joe White: My Story,” students applauded as the film’s namesake, 23-year-old Joe White, slowly walked to the stage using a cane.
“If this presentation saves one life, one life, it has all been worth it,” White said.
Students from Marion, Centre, and Hillsboro school districts had just seen graphic footage from 2006 of an intoxicated White, a senior at Washburn Rural High School in Topeka, leaping from a moving car. He was filmed by one of three friends in the car, who had also all been drinking. His friends continued filming as they found White severely injured and unconscious, gasping for each breath.
“I jumped moving car 35 per hour with alcohol. Here I go. Ow,” White said, his speech choppy but engaging. “Why, why, why? I was foolish, I was stupid. Drinking affects everything.”
The film also detailed White’s life since the accident coping with the serious head injury he sustained, including footage taken by White’s father in the hospital and throughout his rehabilitation.
Abbie Eli is White’s partner for his presentations. She described the results of the brain injury Joe suffered when the left side of his head crashed against the ground.
“Joe has an auditory processing disability, he is partially paralyzed on the right side of his body, and of course has speech issues. He knows what he wants to say, it’s just, j-j-j-just he can’t get it out. I’m sure all of us know what that feels like — Joe has to deal with that constantly,” Eli said.
White spent months in a rehabilitation hospital in Nebraska learning how to speak again, and enduring extensive physical therapy, occupational therapy, and medical procedures to help him adapt to his partial paralysis.
When White returned home, his progress was considered remarkable, but the contrast against the life he once knew was overwhelming for White.
“I’m 18 years old. My whole life. Going to a college. Probably KU. Film school. I love film. But one mistake. Goners,” White said.
“I need assistant. Shower example. My dad. Shaving, my dad. Eating, my dad. Clothes, my dad. Bathroom, my dad,” White said. “I feel hopeless, no faith, no hope. I almost committed suicide. Suicidal.”
“Joe’s dad walked in on him with a knife to his wrist,” Eli said. “That one mistake changed Joe’s life forever.”
White mastered his depression through a combination of counseling, medication, and faith, and returned to Washburn Rural in 2008 to complete his senior year.
In January 2009 White decided he wanted to tell his story to dissuade other students from drinking and bad decision-making. With help he spent the next two months creating a 20-minute video, and delivered his first presentation at Washburn Rural.
“March 2009. 400 seniors and 400 juniors at prom. I was so excited, so scared, nervous, nervous. I talked 20 minutes on video,” White said. “And my talk? ‘Hi, how are you? I am Joe, and don’t do it.’ I walked back down.”
“That was his first presentation. Clearly Joe has gotten a lot better,” Eli said. “This is Joe’s life now, this is what he does for a living, this is his passion.”
“I survived. Second life. Second chance,” White said.
Eli said they have received hundreds of encouraging e-mails and comments through White’s page on Facebook. White related the story told by one he received following a presentation at Topeka West High School in 2011.
“At prom 2011, getting ready for dance, post-prom no to drinking. I tell the message, six parties got canceled for me,” White said.
But another incident following that presentation is an example that not everyone is equally impacted by White’s message.
“Graduation party, one month. Girlfriend, boyfriend driving, drinking, 35 per hour hit on a tree. The boy flew out 35 miles per hour. He died,” White said.
“These were the same kids he spoke to a month before. When he sees things like that happen, it breaks his heart when it’s kids he’s specifically spoken to,” Eli said.
Marion Middle School students were among more than 600 who attended one of White’s three presentations. Eighth-grader Alli Boyd was impressed by White’s talk.
“It was really inspiring how with everything he went through he strives to help people and make better decisions. It will help a lot just thinking about what he went through,” Boyd said.
Eighth-graders Emily Schneider and Sydnee Baldwin described what they thought was the most influential part of White’s visit.
“It was the point where he came on the stage and just told us everything — you could just see it on his face that he really meant it, that he did go through it,” Schneider said.
“It was kind of shocking to see him in real life and to realize that this is the guy that went through all that,” Baldwin added. “It really helps me to know not to do that.”
Other students, including seventh-graders Sammy Fugitt and Sage Nuss, wrote personal messages on White’s Facebook fan page.
“You are my inspiration. Your story really impacted my future decisions, and I’d like to thank you for coming to our school and being an incredible inspiration. #keepfightingstrong!” Fugitt wrote.
This was the second time Nuss had seen White.
“The first time I saw your video and you in real life, I cried. You’re a magnificent impact on my life and many others. I have both of your bracelets and i wear them all the time. Your story is my story. I’ve told it many, many times... And it NEVER gets old. P.S. Your hug means a lot,” Nuss wrote.
Spreading the message
When White started looking for opportunities to tell his story, it wasn’t easy getting bookings, Eli said.
“I put together a marketing campaign for Joe in 2009. It was very challenging to try to cold call principals and counselors,” Eli said. “But we got into the school systems and every gig then turned into another one. Word of mouth is the best advertising you can get.”
Eli works alongside White in his presentations, but plays a much greater role in White’s speaking aspirations.
“I do all of his booking and scheduling, speak with him, I’m his driver, his agent, his people,” Eli said.
White still keeps his hand in with his interest in filmmaking by creating post-season videos for Washburn Rural athletic teams and cheerleaders, but his passion is clear and simply stated.
“My side job,” White said of his filmmaking. “But my full time job, I want to share my story.”