‘I want to reclaim my life:’ Widow of youth pastor killed in church van accident reflects one year after tragedy
By J.J. Kindred | (email@example.com)
Exactly one year after her husband was tragically killed in an accident that involved their church’s youth group coming back from a weekend retreat in Gatlinburg, Kim Trussell is still putting the pieces of her life back together.
On the morning of Sept. 16, 2012, Jeff Trussell, youth pastor at Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, was driving his church’s van full of youth group members coming back from Gatlinburg. The van was hit head-on as it was traveling up Chapman Highway in Seymour, causing it to burst into flames and killing Trussell, 45, and 16-year-old Seymour High School student Courteney Kaliszewski, plus severely injuring 11 others.
A 1997 Chevy Blazer, driven by 22-year-old Tyler Schaeffer of Seymour, was traveling southbound on Chapman Highway and crossed over the center line on the highway and struck the van head-on in the right hand lane on the northbound side, causing it to catch fire.
Schaeffer was convicted earlier this year in federal court on several robbery and drug-related charges prior to the crash. He was allegedly high on bath salts when the crash occurred, and still awaits trial for it in Sevier County, facing two counts of vehicular homicide, reckless aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, driving under the influence and drug possession.
Kim Trussell and members of her own family and her church family have been in courtrooms during the past year for the majority of hearings involving Schaeffer.
In the meantime, she has continued the recovery process with her church family and supporters, as the church hosted the “Hold On Be Strong” 5K Run/Walk Sunday afternoon in memory of her husband and Kaliszewski to benefit the Seymour Volunteer Fire Department, who were among the first to respond to the accident.
Trussell and her son, Dylan, conducted an online interview with The Daily Times last week to reflect on the events of a year ago.
“As a mother, I’ve realized that I cannot shield my son from loss or pain, and that’s a difficult lesson,” Trussell said. “I’ve also experienced a new pride this past year, though, in seeing what a hard-working, thoughtful, loving, funny young man Dylan is, never complaining, pitching in and helping out, becoming the true man of the house. I have been able to reflect that the influence Jeff had on Dylan’s first 20 years were powerful and positive. Jeff didn’t have a father around, but he made sure Dylan had one, and a good one. I am so grateful that I have Dylan. He’s just like Jeff.
“As a person, I am not sure that I can say I have grown,” Trussell continued. “I have been in survival mode for the past year. I am at a crossroad, however, where I realize that I can choose to let Sept. 16 have the power over me that it has for the past year, or I can reclaim my life. I want to reclaim my life.”
Good days, bad days
Trussell said she has had good days and bad days, coping with the feeling and dealing with the grief that her husband is not around.
“I would go so far to say I have good moments and bad moments,” she said. “I realize I’m blessed still, though. My faith is the cornerstone of how I deal with the hurt and the disappointment. A reunion with Jeff and an eternal life with him in glory are in the works. I am hanging everything I have on that. I have a very strong support system in my family, and I have a fantastic church family at Cedar Grove and a special sisterhood of friends and co-workers too. Jeff’s former co-workers still stay in touch with us. My mother always has told me, ‘Have your 5- or 10-minute cry, and then put your big girl panties on and move on.’”
Trussell said her husband would love all the attention that his family has been receiving since the tragedy.
“He would get a huge laugh at that particularly loony-looking photo some of the news stations keep running of him,” Trussell said. “Jeff never much placed stock in the opinions of others, but I know the love that has just been beamed at us would make him proud. He gave so much of himself to other people, whether it was at church, at work, or personally. He would be happy to know that folks are looking after his family.”
Dylan Trussell said he has worked hard to carry on his father’s legacy.
“The way I honor my father now is just by being myself which is just like him,” he said. “I continue to try to bring laughter to all and put my faith in God. This year has been hard, but I’m just going to keep holding on.”
Kim Trussell said the children in her husband’s youth group were already close, but have bonded because “they have experienced something that no one else but them can understand. They are ready to go back to just being regular kids. They don’t want all the attention of being ‘those kids in the church van wreck,’ although each of them have displayed an inner strength and determination to overcome their circumstances and just go on about the business of growing up. They have earned the admiration of the community. They still fellowship, still work at Second Harvest (Food Bank), still participate in all the things at church they did before the wreck. I hear some of them still tell funny Jeff stories or bring up memories with Courteney in them, and I am glad to see that.”
When asked what she would say to Schaeffer if they had a face-to-face conversation alone, Trussell said she didn’t think it would be a productive one.
“He has done a lot of bad things, and there are consequences,” Trussell said. “I could sit across from him and tell him about the two wonderful people he murdered, the 11 kids he injured, the families he has hurt, but I am not sure it would make any difference to him. He is someone that has lived for himself. Sadly, I am sure that is all he is going to have in the end too.”
Trussell said that now that a year has passed, she absolutely intends to make a full recovery.
“When Jeff died last year, I felt as if my life was over too,” she said. “The life I knew is over, yes, but I am still here. Jeff and Courteney are living it up beyond our wildest imaginations in paradise. Why should we punish ourselves for being left behind? I can say that I will never stop missing Jeff, never stop loving him. I will never stop wishing Sept. 16 had never happened. But the best way to honor Jeff and Courteney is to continue to live life, taking the good with the bad, and trying to enjoy myself as much as I can and be as positive as I can.
“We have established the Be Strong Memorial Fund at Second Harvest for people to continue donating in their memory,” Trussell continued. “The ‘Hold On Be Strong’ 5K effort was to observe the year anniversary in a positive way that included the community and benefited the Seymour Volunteer Fire Department. But things don’t have to happen with their names attached to honor them. God was glorified through their lives and God was glorified in their death too. If I can continue to glorify God in my life, then I am also honoring Jeff and Courteney. That’s what I want.”