Recovery Through Advocacy, One Step at a Time
by Gary Howe, Advocacy Director
Last July 22, Kaischa Smith was riding her bike to the Leelanau Trail from her home in Traverse City. A beautiful midsummer stillness was in the air. But before she reached the trail, it abruptly gave way to a storm of trauma and disorientation. A driver going 35 mph in an Audi crashed into her while she was crossing Grandview Parkway at the Elmwood Avenue crosswalk.
The impact was devastating. Both of her legs snapped. Her right elbow shattered. She suffered internal injuries. Given her pre-existing blood clotting disorder, it is remarkable she survived. Smith owes her life to the exceptional efforts of emergency responders and health professionals.
Kaischa came to the Norte Clubhouse this spring to share her story because she wants to help make crosswalks safer for everyone, everywhere. Since then, she has told her story multiple times to the press. One account of her experience can be found in the June 22 Northern Express. She has also participated in the Lucinda Means Advocacy Day in Lansing, and has advocated for people crossing Traverse City’s Division Street to have more and safer options as the Michigan Department of Transportation works on its upcoming Division Street reconstruction.
I recently sat down with Kaischa so that she could share her story directly with the Norte community.
It’s been almost a year since the crash. How are you doing?
Well…I’m doing. That doesn’t sound like much, but to me, it means a lot. Part of my identity and personal pride was in being an active, capable, independent young woman. The injuries I sustained from the crash stripped that from me. I couldn’t stand, walk, use the bathroom, bathe, dress, or do a myriad of other daily activities without help. It’s taken this whole time to not just regain those abilities, but to do them without debilitating pain and with better efficiency, stamina, and confidence. Yes, I’m doing. I’m so grateful and proud of myself for that.
A few weeks ago you met me at the new and improved crosswalk on Grandview. You crossed for the first time since last year. It was very moving to witness what was clearly a powerful emotional experience for you. After you crossed, you took some time to decompress. Can you walk us through what was running through your head?
Oh boy. How can I put this in words? I’ve heard it put that we have a full keyboard of emotions available to us but that we have a tendency to deny ourselves the right and humanity to play all those “emotional keys.” If we’re leaning in and fully engaging with life though, we allow ourselves to strike them all. And they don’t have to be played one at a time. It’s possible to hit an entire chord built of terror and grief and gratitude and pride, and then move right on to the next notes. It’s a bittersweet melody, but it’s beautiful. I really felt it all in that moment – and over the course of this year, for that matter.
So there I was crossing Grandview with that powerful emotional song inside, in tears, and trying to catch my breath. And around me was the morning rush hour audience in their cars at full stop. Then just as I cleared the road, someone near the rear of the line started honking because the front cars weren’t proceeding right away through the flashing red lights. You know that record scratch sound? It felt kind of like that, and I remember thinking, “Wow. What a poignant example of our social interactions.” So many of us carry around some really heavy yet invisible baggage. I wish we all would be just a little more patient, a little more kind. Life’s hard sometimes.
In the spring, you came to Norte’s Clubhouse wanting to engage with Norte advocacy. A definition of advocacy I like is “actions of public support for a particular cause or policy” – in particular, causes or policies directed toward those most vulnerable in a community. With that in mind, why is engaging in advocacy work important to you?
I think there are two sides to this coin for me – a personal side and a community side. For starters, I scrolled through the social media response to the crash when I was in the hospital. Call it my morbid curiosity getting the better of me.
That was a major punch in the gut. There was so much bickering and victim shaming and so little condolence. And a lot of the narrative about the event – and our roadways, crosswalks, and commuting roles in general – was uninformed, even prejudicial. To watch and listen to the narrative of “my” story – and the driver’s story, for that matter – be grabbed and perverted by public discourse created another layer of trauma for me. Being able to find and use my voice has been a way to recover something intensely personal.
At the same time, the power of our attitudes and words really hit home. I don’t want the crash to define me. There’s so much more to me than that, and frankly, I don’t feel like a human tragedy. I’m a survivor, and more and more, a thriver. I would much rather people discover who I am as a person, how I’ve moved forward from adversity, and how I’m using the power of my story to advocate – and hopefully transform – the roadways in our community to better consider the safety of everyone who uses them.
You have really put yourself out there during these last few months. Thank you for stepping up as a citizen advocate! What’s the initial experience been like as you tell your story? And, what are some of your goals going forward?
It’s been an important part of my recovery. Recovering from trauma involves so much more than recovering from injuries or illness. So much is about recovering your Life – with a capital “L.” I feel empowered. It gives me hope that good can come from even the worst situations. I can’t erase that the crash happened, but I can whitewash it with as many positive experiences as possible to dilute the trauma. The result is something more constructive and encouraging.
For me, the common goals of the opportunities I pursue boil down to supporting and advocating for safer, more equitable roadways for all users. That could entail pursuing changes in how our roadways are designed, policy changes, or plugging in wherever political support is needed. I want to see more safer crosswalks and really appreciate the changes at Elmwood and Hall Streets.
I also hope sharing my story builds compassion, patience, and personal accountability in how we move and interact in our community. Crashes like the one I experienced are thankfully rare but can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any moment.
It may be too soon to fully answer this, but we know that survivors of roadway crashes often carry with them lasting impacts. There are physical injuries, of course, but also psychological trauma. I know you’re aware of these, so I’m curious if you can describe that transformation.
I think the most transformative impact was something I realized while still laying on the pavement after the crash. I realized that living was not – and is not – anything to take for granted. And, that my presence or absence in the world was going to matter in a more significant way than I ever imagined, even if only to my family.
Eventually, it didn’t take long for waves of cards, flowers, hospital visits, and other gestures from friends and school family to roll in, and I realized that my existence mattered to more people than I expected. That’s a really empowering realization to make, and I feel immense gratitude. I’m not only deeply appreciative for my life, family, and friends – it extends to countless other members of our community who serve us, and me directly, in the public safety, health, and wellness arenas.
As a result, I choose to engage with life more consciously, openly, and actively, not just with and for my family and friends, but also by leaning in to my community. A deep sense of gratitude has been personally transformative for me, but it’s been magnified and socially impactful when expressed in words and actions.
If you’re grateful for someone or something, don’t hold it in. Let it out and watch what happens.
Anything you’d like to add or share with the Norte community?
Do your part as an individual because at the end of the day, the only way we can improve our community is by consistently holding ourselves personally accountable, managing our own behaviors, and continually advocating for safer conditions on our streets. We need to be role models on the road, no matter if we’re walking, biking, scooting, or driving. There is definitely transformative power and strength in numbers. Let’s do this together!
You’re Invited: Kaischa will be planting flowers at the base of the new crosswalk signals at Elmwood Ave. to celebrate her year of recovery. She invites the Norte community to join her. Plans are tentative for the morning of July 21 or July 22. If you’re interested in joining Kaischa, please email email@example.com.
For more information on the rules regulating the new crosswalks on Grandview Parkway at Hall St. and Elmwood Ave., read our introduction to HAWK signals. To see how you can join Norte’s advocacy efforts and sign up for advocacy alerts, visit our advocacy page.