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Schools: Prom season lesson (snap) – life’s short (snap)

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Chris Skinner, 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, looks down from the stage. In front of him is another man. Seated, he doesn’t rise much above 4 feet. He weighs something over 300 pounds, but that includes the weight of his wheelchair. He is also Chris Skinner.

“I remember like it was yesterday. I put my feet on the ground. I stood up,” he says from his wheelchair. That was in 2000. The day he went to a friend’s wedding. That Chris Skinner only exists in photos, like the one projected on the screen hanging in the Waccamaw High auditorium.

It’s prom week at the school. Skinner spoke to the senior and junior classes this week about the accident that left him paralyzed below his collarbone; the day, he says, “I woke up just like you.”

He has a raspy drawl, the product of growing up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and living in eastern Virginia as well as the fact that his diaphragm functions at half capacity and one lung at only 60 percent. He’s a plain speaker. He only cites one statistic, gleaned from personal experience: that his audience has been told many times before to be safe. “I heard it so many times. I was like, whatever,” he says.

A 34-year-old man in a wheelchair holds the audience in the palm of hands that are permanently curled because he lacks the muscle to open them. He doesn’t tell them to be safe. He tells them to snap their fingers. One, two, three … snap. “That’s how fast life can pass,” Skinner says.

One, two, three … snap.

“Life is a privilege,” he says. “Please, please, please don’t take it for granted like I did.”

His parents divorced when he was 14 and he moved from the beach to Franklin, Va. At first he was struck by the smell from the paper mill in the city. Locals didn’t notice. Eventually, he didn’t either. “That’s what we do with the dangers of drugs and alcohol,” Skinner says.

In June 2000, he and a friend drove to the wedding. They both had to work the next day and agreed not to stay for the reception. They were leaving and “the door was this close to being closed,” he says, conjuring an image that he can no longer demonstrate with his fingers. Some other friends urged him to stay for the party.

His wheelchair rolls slowly across the stage, drawn by the promise of beer, music and girls on a June night. “Get the bleep out of here,” he tells his friend. He tells the students, “What breaks my heart more than anything is watching that kid walk away.”

He got a ride with a friend. They were only going a couple of miles. He put on his seat belt, then unbuckled it. The road curved. “The very last curve, there was one of these huge caution signs,” Skinner says.

The car flipped. Skinner was thrown into a ditch. His neck was broken.

The audience knows the rest of the story. “Your lives matter,” Skinner said. “I would like you to go out there and make it count.”

Since he became a motivational speaker 13 years ago, Skinner said, he’s spoken to more than a million students. At one time, he would speak at as many as nine schools in three days. Now, he said, speaking at one is exhausting.

“I’ve been trying to quit doing this,” he said. At the same time, he wants to share his story with more kids.

He came to Waccamaw High this week because Gay Kelly needed physical therapy for her shoulder last year. Her therapist was Chris Skinner’s wife Suzie. They moved to Myrtle Beach with their two children and Suzie told Gay about Chris’ work.

Kelly’s grandson, Bennett Meares, is a Waccamaw High student, so she recommended Skinner. The school always has a speaker before the prom. Last year, it was a state trooper. Others have included the families of accident victims. One was responsible for a friend’s death.

“I think this will be effective,” said Mary Tester, a teacher who helps organize the prom. “It was in their faces.”

De’Johanna Manick, a senior, said she has heard messages about safety, but Skinner’s story made an impact. “He was like us,” she said. “One thing happened.”

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