Words by Joe Wabe
Photos courtesy of Claire Kim
Most of us believe we are in control of our future, our goals and dreams are set, and we are certain that it is only a matter of time before we can reach the sky and become successful in life. For most of us, success has a lot to do with money, careers, business, and making a name for ourselves. We have taken the words “I will” and made them into a mantra that we live upon and repeat daily. And although there is nothing wrong with believing in a happy future, most of us take for granted the “now,” which in reality is the one in control. Unfortunately, this is a concept that many people are not aware of, and for only a few, it is when tragedy strikes that it becomes their new mantra.
For Claire Kim, her future dreams were the Holy Grail she lived constantly pursuing. She saw herself as a future businesswoman. As an art major who had studied English abroad in Ireland and with more than six years of teaching experience, she dreamed of running her own English kindergarten business. Her mom was a very successful real estate entrepreneur, and Claire herself was hungry to follow her footsteps into the business world. That is, until tragedy struck.
On December 18, 2012, Kim got a message from her friends, asking to meet after work. It was the day before Election Day in Korea; everyone was celebrating the fact that the following day was a holiday. Koreans were preparing to cast their ballots to choose their new president. What was supposed to be a fun and merry night, turned out to be an event that changed Claire’s life forever – an event she calls an “awakening” from how she thought of the future, and how she turned into an advocate of the “now.”
She jumped into the backseat of a taxi, and was simply enjoying the thought of getting together with her friends; after all, there was no work the following day. While she was chatting on her phone and getting excited about her night out, she did not realize the taxi driver was going over 130 kph. What was about to come was unimaginable.
The taxi driver saw the yellow light, but at that speed, he was certain that the “Taxi Gods” would embrace him just like they had before. He was wrong. A big truck came from nowhere, and the 130 kph of the taxi plus the mass of the truck equaled tragedy. The impact threw Claire from the backseat to the front, hitting the dash, and then being flung back, like a rag doll.
Back in the backseat, she was conscious; she thought for a moment it was just a bad dream. She could hear commotion, she could smell the strong smell of burnt tires, she was aware of people reaching out to help. She tried to get a grip on the situation, and that is when she realized she could not move her legs. At the hospital, the diagnosis was heartbreaking: she had suffered a neck fracture that damaged her C7 vertebrate and her spinal cord. She had lost complete control of her legs.
For the next three years, Claire had to spend most of her time in hospitals. She had to go through intensive physical therapy and a new kind of education she never thought she would have to learn: how to cope with disability. Away from her friends, family and city, she learned the hard lesson of learning to appreciate the “now.” This powerful lesson made her become a strong person. After overcoming the initial state of shock and denial, she set up to write a new chapter for her life, and she was determined to set new goals.
The first goal on her list was to learn how to cope with weakness. She came to realize that these events in her life had only made her stronger, and there must be a purpose for all of these struggles. She had a strong feeling that she did not want to give up her teaching dreams. After the second year in the hospital, she began researching for ways in which she could be able to teach. She strongly believed in herself and was not going to throw the towel in so easily. Soon after, she was able to find programs where she could use her experience to help others. Her search started to pay off, and she was introduced to someone in charge of a teaching program to spread awareness of disability to institutions and schools. After leaving the hospital and her legal battles with insurance companies, she decided to move on her own and start a new life, against the advice of her parents. After getting her own apartment, she began studying to pass the required teaching tests, and not too long after, she was certified as an instructor in the field of disability.
Claire now travels around Jeollanam-do teaching disability awareness to institutions and schools. She realizes that, in Korea, to be an outsider is an issue that needs to be addressed strongly, and she believes this is a task that only strong people can achieve. She has also gone back to school, taking a new major in physical rehabilitation at the Nazarene University in Cheonan, and she has also completed a driving class for people with disabilities, allowing her to own a license for a car specially designed for her disability, which allows her to have full control of the vehicle by only using her hands.
A new movie recently came out entitled “Wonder Woman,” but I truly believe that Wonder Woman has nothing on Claire. “I used to believe in the future, now I only believe in the now,” she says. The universe was the result of a big bang that created chaos. Chaos settles into harmony. I believe Claire carries the original blueprint of our existence. She has understood the fact that we have the key to turn tragedy into something powerful, and she is convinced that soon she will be able to reach out to even more people, making her dreams a little bit bigger every day. That is why I believe she is a true community leader.