Thursday, September 14, 2017

So many lives cut short

Left to right - Sandi Reneberg and Denise Miller.
Rural Kansas … a small town of 443 people … family oriented, farming community. The entire school district consists of about 200 students most years - 75 of which attend high school. This sounds like the ideal place to raise children, right?  For the most part, that’s true. Our children receive a wonderful, individualized education nurtured by a loving community that cares.
But, there is a downside. In the past 15 years, five students, from our small high school, have lost their lives in car accidents. Each one affects you … but then it hits far too close to your heart.
In 2013, Riley Reneberg lost his life at the age of 16, right after the school day ended. Not quite two years later, Courtney Faith, was traveling to school when her life was cut short. Both were high school sophomores.
These are the stories Riley and Courtney’s mothers will replay in their minds forever:

By Sandi Reneberg (Riley’s mom)
Riley was an outgoing, caring young man. He had tons of friends and wanted to be a part of everything, hanging out as long as he could. He happened to be riding around with some friends after school.While folding laundry, I had been reflecting on the accident that happened 10 years earlier on that day. In a small community, you know everyone. Thoughts of that boy’s parents had been weighing on my heart all day. What must they be feeling today?

Riley Reneberg
School was out early for teacher in-service. I had tried to reach Riley to ask when to expect him home, but there was no answer. The phone began to ring.  My nephew was on the other end of the line. He was in town and heard the emergency sirens sound. Word travels fast, and he heard there was an accident north of town. “Where is Riley?” he asked. As I hung up the phone and continued to call Riley, again and again, I ran to find my husband in the shop.  At this point, we had no idea what lie in store for the rest of our lives.
As we headed toward town, the police scanner blared. There were four people in an accident about a mile from our house. Our hearts sank as the voice announced, one code yellow, two code reds and one code black. We knew black meant we had lost yet another teen.  All we could do was pray for all involved and wait.
As we arrived where traffic was blocked near the accident site, one of our very good friends, a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, met us in tears.  I asked him if it was Riley, and he shook his head “yes.”  Our dear, sweet, boy was the code black … how would we ever go on without him?
The boys were, for lack of a better term, being boys. School was out early and they were “playing” the same way they did as children, but with bigger toys. Speeding through a mud puddle with two in the front of the pick-up, and two riding in the bed, receiving the muddy splatter. Innocent country fun … right?
WRONG!!!  No one was wearing a seat belt. They had no idea what risk they were taking as they “horsed-around” in the mud. After losing control, the pick-up left the road, rolling into a field. The two boys in the back jumped from the truck. Those in the front didn’t have that option.  With no seat belts, they were at the mercy of the tumbling vehicle. Both boys were ejected. One sustained massive injuries. Our Riley was instantly killed.  
The boy with the least injuries scrambled to locate a phone and call for help. They all knew what a desperate situation they faced and were forced to come to grips with the fate of their dear friend.  
Not only was our family changed forever, but these three boys, their families and the community would NEVER be the same.

 Fast forward a year and 10 months...

By Denise Miller (Courtney’s mom):
Courtney Miller
Nothing prepares you .... for the emptiness felt when you no longer hold your beautiful, bubbly daughter.  The girl who found the positive ray of sunshine in EVERY situation. The one who made you laugh until you cried. Courtney was that young lady!  EVERYDAY was her “Best Day Ever!”  She had dreams of going to North Central University and entering the mission field, excited to reach the people of the world with the Gospel.
Nothing prepares you …for standing at the edge of a field, held back by rescue workers, as you scream, cry, react. That realization that comes over you when you comprehend they are doing nothing to free your precious baby from her vehicle. Because ... there is nothing that can be done. It’s already too late.
Just moments earlier, I had kissed Courtney and told her I loved her as I began the seven-mile drive to school, wanting to arrive early and prepare for the day. She would be following that same course within half an hour. But before the morning bell had rung, I learned that she was involved in an auto accident. Not overly anxious about the fender-bender I expected to reach, I followed a first responder vehicle to the scene. The truck was not driving fast, so my mind was at ease, pondering cuts, bruises, at worst a broken bone. I was oblivious to the fact that my worst nightmare was about to begin. Courtney’s beautiful smile and the sound of her laughter would be absent both at home and in my class. Our family would NEVER be the same.
What happened? We will never know for sure. Courtney was a cautious driver. She was in no hurry and had time to visit with her dad in the kitchen over coffee. She was wearing her seat belt and her cell phone was tucked away in her back pocket.  But, she was a young driver. Did a deer cross the road causing her to swerve and overcorrect?  Was it simply the washboard condition of the road that she didn’t anticipate even though she traveled it each morning?  WE WILL NEVER KNOW!  We live each and every day with the empty place Courtney has left in our home, and in our hearts.
As mentioned earlier, these accidents occurred within a two-year time frame, and they were on the heels of far too many others.  

In conclusion -
Of the five accidents occurring over a 15-year timespan, only one occurred after dark!  
We make sure our teens buckle up and keep their phones safely tucked away when we are in the vehicle. But, what do they do when we’re not there?
Have you looked at the statistics? Have you talked with your teen, about the dangers they face EVERY TIME they crawl behind the steering wheel? Or, when they ride with someone else?
Following Courtney’s accident in February 2015, Jamie and Sandi Reneberg were determined this had to stop!  Because of their resolve and the support of the community, they contacted local law enforcement to see what could be done. As a result, Thunder Ridge High School now has the SAFE (Seatbelts Are For Everyone) Program, educating teens about the dangers they face as young drivers. And at the very first meeting, Denise Miller, a high school teacher and NHS Advisor, volunteered National Honor Society students to take the lead.  Since that time, seat belt usage has increased from 74% to 89%.  
Do we still have a long way to go?  Absolutely!  But if one life is saved, it could be the life of YOUR CHILD.  Sandi and Denise do not want you to tell a similar story!  



  1. I can't imagine the pain felt losing a loved one. My heart breaks reading about these two young people and their families. I am incredibly sorry for your loss.

    The worst part of any traffic fatality is that they are mostly preventable. If someone had gone a little slower, their reaction time would have increased. If someone had put that phone away just seconds before impact they would have seen the traffic ahead. If someone had decided to contact a designated driver to bring them home safely after that party, they wouldn't have caused that crash. If someone had encouraged another to wear their seatbelt maybe they would still be alive today...

    Think before you drive. Before you get behind the wheel, consider all the lives who are your responsibility. May we all have that thought before we turn the key.

    1. Jesi Sue Gordon was also on that list of taken before they had time to be adults. Daughter of Keith and Kristi Gordon - Granddaughter of Don and Janet Suchsland - Francis and Connie Gordon.

  2. I was the first 1st responder on scene for Courtney. This happened a couple days after I lost my mother which made it even harder. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of these kids. When that pager goes off before school starts or late at night, I get a knot in my stomach wondering what it is. Is it another one of our kids. Sandi and Denise are two of the best parents that you will ever see, but that doesn't keep bad things from happening to there kids. Listen to there message and take something from it. do what is in your power and help to stop or at least minimize these tragic accidents.

  3. As a parent, I can't imagine loosing a child. It's a parents worse nightmare. I am so sorry for your loss.

    The SAFE Program is a great educational program where teens are the leaders in their schools. They take the lead with activities and participation in promoting safety and the use of seat belts. SAFE has proven to be successful, increasing the use of wearing your seat belt every time you get in a car. It's great that you've reached out in working with and promoting traffic safety among teens. And that spreads over time to include additional family members, both young and old.

    Thank you.

  4. Denise and Sandi, I'm so sorry for your losses and what you and your families and community have to face every day. I can only imagine how crushing it is. Sharing your stories is a very powerful way in which your children can continue to have a positive influence on others.

  5. Thank you Sandi and Denise for sharing your story and for working to make our children, families and communities safer. I lost a 15 year old nephew in much the same way almost 20 years ago and I still miss him. Know that all you do does keep our kids safe and keeps other families from experiencing what you have experienced.

  6. I was in a car accident a few years back and had an amputee there a boy that hit us was 19 from Phillipsburg and he passed away at the scene my son at the time was in the car he walked away but saw the damage it did to everybody he was just talking to me last night about how he's going to see his counselor because he has such anxiety when he rides in a car with his young friends when I was in high school I was in a five car accidents before I graduated all other drivers but one the one that I was driving I wasn't even license to drive yet hadn't been to driver's ed and somebody let me drive the truck . Kids just have no idea of the mortality rate and the simple and easy Ness of how it happens and how quick they do need a safety reminder we need one every single day Smith Center stages wrecked vehicles right on the road way to leaving school to remind the kids what happens I hope it helps

  7. Who were the others that were killed in those 15 years? Good article. It touches the reader's heart, no doubt. However, I have the feeling of incompleteness because the remaining students were "left out" so to speak. My heart goes out to these mothers, father's and family. Understandably Devastating. <3

    1. Two young men were lost in 2003 and a young lady was lost in 2006.

    2. Chet Kuhlmann, Ryan Struckhoff, and Jesse Gordon

  8. Thank you for sharing your stories Sandi and Denise. Awareness and education are vital to saving other young peoples' lives. I think it's wonderful you have started the SAFE program in your school. My heart goes out to you, your families, the other families and the community.

  9. Your son is one that totally understands the danger that vehicles impose. He is probably one of just a few that takes driving seriously and is cautious about who he gets in a vehicle with. Sadly it was his experience of that early morning crash that has embedded it in his mind. By talking and sharing his story he helps not only himself but others too. I often think of him when I am driving my, making me a more conscious and defensive driver because like he says, you don't know what other drivers are doing. I admire these two parents who are putting it all out there, reliving their nightmares in the hopes of saving other young lives. Smith Center High School has also instituted the SAFE program and I believe it has made a difference in the usage of seatbelts for students and adults alike. Thank you to all for being strong enough to share.