GROTON -- It's been almost 20 years.
He's now 35 years old but when Will Wellman was 16, he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a tragic car accident.
With one of his best friends in the back seat, and the other at the wheel, Wellman was in the front passenger seat when the driver was distracted as he tried to retrieve his dropped hamburger and drove into oncoming traffic. Wellman was severely injured, has had lifelong complications, and now is a spokesperson for people with different abilities.
As part of Handicap Awareness Month, Groton-Dunstable Middle School Principal Steve Silverman asked Wellman to speak at an assembly for students. Wellman attended school in Groton many years ago.
Pam Green, Shared Living Placement Coordinator at the Horace Mann Educational Associates, with which Will Wellman is affiliated, introduced the afternoon program. HMEA facilitates relationships with people who have developmental disabilities, partnering with those affected and their families in a supporting role to help meet their individual needs.
Green told the students of Wellman's spirit and self-determination. She explained that "traumatic brain injuries are caused by an external force or action ... They can cause headaches, difficulties with balance or speech, mood swings, and changes in personalities," many symptoms that Wellman has experienced. The message communicated to the GDRMS students by Green was, "It's important to understand the individual (who is handicapped) and their capabilities.
Following her opening, a slide show presented Will Wellman's history to the students. As they listened to the narrator, they learned that Wellman had been in a coma for two weeks after his accident, with his mother by his side, and that upon awakening, he could not sit up, walk, or talk. He communicated with pen and paper, unable to regain his ability to speak for eight years. "He became depressed during his recovery, not wanting to live," his mother, Elaine Haran stated in he film.
At the film's conclusion, Ron Anderson, also of HMEA and a pastor for 40 years, joined Will Wellman at the podium, as Wellman personally addressed the students. "I like to tell jokes," he said to the kids. "Would you like to hear some?" Reacting with a unanimous, "Yea!" the students were entertained with Wellman's jokes for a few minutes. "Why did the turtle cross the street?" he asked. A resounding, "Why?" came back from the students. "To get to the 'Shell Station'!" Wellman answered as the kids laughed out loud.
Not without difficulty, Wellman talked about his "nightmare," but stated, "It also changed my life in good ways." Wellman works Monday through Friday, delivering Meals on Wheels. He wanted the kids to know, that having woken up afraid, not knowing what had happened to him, and eventually, coming to terms with the seriousness of the injuries he had sustained, "The very best you can do for the world is to make the most of yourself."
Opening the floor to questions, one student asked, "What advice would you give today?" Wellman responded, "Wear your seatbelt!" and "Don't fall into peer pressure. Be yourself." Another student asked, "Why do you talk so fast?" and Wellman triggered another round of laughter as he answered, "I couldn't talk for eight years. I have to make up for lost time!"
Will Wellman has an incredible support system. In addition to his sponsors at the Horace Mann Educational Associates, Wellman's mother, Elaine Haran, his stepfather, Dan Haran, his grandmother, Evelyn Gardner, and his brother, Mike Wellman, all joined him and encouraged him, as he shared his incredible story with the Groton-Dunstable Middle School students.
Margaret Perras, of Groton, a friend of Wellman's mother, observed the presentation and was impressed by the extraordinary level of interest of the students, noting, "The students were so quiet listening to Will. You could hear a pin drop!