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Impact breaks a body, not the spirit

Struck by a truck, an active teenager lives to re-join a huge support network.

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Jenelle McKee, 14, says a prayer Tuesday with youth minister Brian LaRue of Central Christian Church and her mother, Lois McKee, at Bayfront Medical Center.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 18, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- A mother's nightmare began for Lois McKee in the heat of a Florida afternoon.

Her 14-year-old daughter, Jenelle, was late getting home from Gibbs High School on Friday. Soon after, Mrs. McKee opened her door to two police officers and Jenelle's friend Elise Brumer.

One of the officers asked a puzzling question, "Do you have your keys and your purse?"

Mrs. McKee will never forget what he said next: "Your daughter was hit by a car." Then Elise said, "No, it was by a truck."

Even as panic set in, Mrs. McKee grabbed her insurance papers. As she got ready to follow the police cruiser to Bayfront Medical Center, she did one more thing.

"Before I left my driveway, I called my church," said the mother of four, explaining that she needed prayers for her daughter and she wanted a pastor from her congregation, Central Christian Church, to go to the hospital.

"As I was driving to the hospital, I was asking God not to take my daughter," she said.

Jenelle McKee, a freshman at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs, had been hit by a pickup while crossing Fifth Avenue N at 61st Street, shortly after stepping off her school bus.

A concussion left her with no memory of the accident. The catalog of injuries? A broken tibia, a broken pelvis, and a broken shoulder. It could have been much worse. Though she was thrown for yards, she landed on grass, a "blessing," says her mother.

At the hospital, Mrs. McKee wasn't allowed to see Jenelle right away.

"I wanted to see my daughter," she said Monday, anxiety still in her voice.

The St. Petersburg Police Department is investigating the accident, said Officer Willie Jennings, adding that he still is trying to talk with two more witnesses.

He said Jenelle was thrown about 20 feet after she was hit by a blue Chevrolet S10 pickup. The driver has not been charged because the police have not yet determined whether the teenager was hit at the intersection of Fifth Avenue N and 61st Street or west of it, Jennings said.

photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Recuperating after her accident, Jenelle McKee, 14, who models, talks on the phone to her modeling agent from her hospital bed at Bayfront Medical Center on Tuesday.
The moment she was hit, Jenelle became a statistic. According to police, over the past three years, 300 pedestrians have been injured in St. Petersburg, and 24 killed.

The Police Department says Florida has the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities nationwide and that the St. Petersburg-Tampa-Clearwater area is ranked the sixth most dangerous for pedestrians.

Jenelle is recovering, though, and should be home by today.

Mrs. McKee, who is on a year's leave of absence from her position as a guidance counselor at Southside Fundamental Middle School, had been taking turns at Jenelle's bedside with her husband, David, who caught an emergency flight back from Switzerland, where he had been on vacation.

Jenelle, her mother says, has been buoyed by the support and prayers of friends. Indeed, a teenage network of telephone calls and e-mails was activated almost immediately after the accident, a demonstration of how teenagers instantaneously get out the word to one another.

"Pretty much everybody knew by 8," said Amy Swanson, an International Baccalaureate student at St. Petersburg High School.

"We were pretty mad about what had happened."

In the days since, Jenelle's hospital room has been crammed with tokens of friendship.

Sarah Holman, 14, who attends Osceola High School, visited on Sunday and Monday. Jenelle's room "was, like, covered with flowers and cards," Sarah said.

Monday evening, Bridget Macke, 14, arrived as a walking get-well card.

"Things like that are so precious," Mrs. McKee said. "I would say that she has no less than 100 people praying for her at all times. Her friend Virginia has started a prayer chain over the Internet. My sister-in-law said if someone had asked her in high school to pray for someone, she would have laughed at them."

Not so this group. Jenelle's friend from middle school, Virginia Bussey, 14, started the prayer chain soon after she learned of the accident.

"I found out late on Friday night," said Virginia, an IB student at St. Petersburg High School.

"I tried to find out the details and all I really knew from the beginning was that she had gotten hit by a truck, so I called a few of my friends and told them about it and then e-mailed friends, just asking for everybody to pray for her, because she is so involved. She does cross country and she also models, so I knew it would be really hard for her to put her life on hold."

Soon after the accident, "Elise's neighbor had just passed them (at the scene)," Mrs. McKee said. "She stayed and prayed with them. ... Elise is really struggling. She, of course, saw the whole thing."

Early this week, Jenelle, whose focus is performance theater at Gibbs, spoke tentatively by telephone.

"I'm progressing. I'm getting better," she said.

"My friends have been really supportive, coming to visit and calling and praying. It's been really great."

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