Shaela Warkentin awoke in a hospital bed at age 15 to a pitch-black world.
The Fresno girl asked the nurses to remove the covering over her eyes, but there was nothing to remove. A car accident had crushed her eyes and left her blind.
Seven years later, Warkentin is graduating from Fresno State with a bachelor's degree in psychology and a minor in child development. She wants to help others the way a psychologist aided her after her accident.
"I gained that warmth and comfort of being told I was OK," Warkentin said of her psychologist. "I want to give that to others."
Her life changed dramatically March 8, 2011. A truck plowed into the back of a car her sister Karissa was driving while they waited at a red light. The girls were returning home from a church youth group meeting. Warkentin's sister and another friend in the vehicle were uninjured.
Doctors thought it could be years before Warkentin recovered, but she was back in class at Bullard High School that fall to start her junior year.
The accident also left her without a sense of smell and a brain injury. She thinks that primarily affected her emotionally.
"I didn't understand what was happening to me and got really stressed," she said. "When I came home from school, I broke down, like a flip-flop."
She learned to walk with a cane and her guide dog, Lennox, and how to complete homework with the help of computer screen readers, audio books and Braille. Her Christian faith and a compassionate family and community helped every step of the way.
Her father, Ken Warkentin, became executive director of nonprofit Valley Center for the Blind in Fresno after her accident to better advocate for her and others who are blind. Her freshman year at Fresno State made him feel like he was back in college. It's not like that anymore.
"She does it all on her own," he said. "She completely does her communication with her professors, she takes care of her own accommodations, she just has it down."
Outside of school, Warkentin's participated in adaptive sports for people with disabilities — including rock climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding, downhill skiing and fishing.
Warkentin has no bad feelings toward Douglas Lindsay, who caused the accident at Barstow and Maroa avenues that left her blind. Lindsay was sentenced to 120 days in jail and five years probation after he pleaded no contest to driving under the influence of prescription drugs. She hopes to meet him someday because she wants him to know she is OK.
"The better she does, the better we feel about what happened," Ken Warkentin said. "It lessens the tragedy of the event when you see the good that is coming out of it."
Still, it isn't easy.
Warkentin still sometimes gets lost on her way to class. She recently heard students walk past her as she called out for help. Someone finally stopped and pointed her in the right direction.
Other times, professors have referred to text written on a whiteboard or in a textbook. Supportive classmates have been by her side to help explain what they see.
She'll continue her education this fall in the clinical psychology program at Alliant International University in Fresno. She wants to earn a doctorate degree. Her dad is sure she can do it.
People often tell him that his daughter is an inspiration. He agrees.
"She's able to take a dark situation and find the joy, find the happiness," he said, "and encourages others to overcome obstacles."
Fresno State graduation
The main university-wide commencement will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 19 at the Save Mart Center, 2650 E. Shaw Ave., Fresno. Doors open at 8 a.m. and the procession begins at 9:30 a.m. More information is available online at fresnostate.edu.