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Fatal Crash Strengthens Family's Faith in God

“I got a phone call about 10:30 from my daughter Carly,” Colleen Cerak recalls the worst night of her life.  “And she was very panicked and said that there was an accident and she thinks Whitney might have been in it and I just needed to pray.” Whitney Cerak was a freshman at Taylor University when the van she and some friends were ridding in was hit by a tractor-trailer.  The coroner informed Colleen and Newell that their daughter died on impact. Whitney’s dad remembers that night, too. “That was a very, very tough moment, very tough night at-at that point.” Colleen said, “People have always said that you have a choice. You can either run to God, you can run away from God. I chose to run to God”

Five people were killed in the accident and four others were injured; all were from Taylor University. To spare Colleen and Newell the pain of seeing their daughter they were told they didn’t need to ID the body.  Newell recalls, “The void that she left when her life was gone, and again, it was one of those moments where we just really had to press into God and to just – and to find strength in him.”

The day before the funeral Colleen found Whitney’s Bible with several verses underlined. Colleen said, “It was just like God had picked those verses for us and it was just like, ‘For – for your love is better than life, therefore my lips will glorify you.’  Psalm 63:3.  And ‘Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’  God was speaking to us. That's when we really truly gave it to God cause if I hadn't done that, I would have tried to do it on my own, and failed miserably cause the hole was so big, but God gave us the strength to honor him through this hard time.”

The Ceraks tried to get use to a life without their daughter. Colleen recalls, “Everyone's life goes on after the funeral.  You know, they go back to their normal world but it was hard.  There was lots of tears.” Newell adds,  “I remember coming home and Colleen would be in the kitchen and we'd just hold on to each other.”

Then, five weeks after the funeral Colleen got another late-night call…again it was from the grant county coroner. “He said, ‘We have reason to believe that your daughter's alive.’” Colleen was skeptical, “and I just felt like somebody just like poked me, you know, and the air was like slowly letting out of this balloon and I was like, ‘Uh, no-no we buried our daughter five weeks ago.’  My heart just sank because I just did think it was a cruel joke and how could anybody be so mean?” Colleen called Newell who was in New York City on a trip with the church youth group. Newell recalls his conversation with Colleen, “And so she tells me that Whitney's alive.  I go, ‘No, we buried her.  We buried Whitney.’”

Reluctantly Colleen and her daughter Carly drove through the night to the hospital. They arrived around 7 am not knowing what to expect. Colleen remembers, “And right outside the door it said ‘Laura van Ryn’ and I remember pushing open the door and seeing this girl and instantly I knew it was Whitney. And I just said, ‘It’s Whitney!’ and Whitney woke up and her eyes were like bit as dollars and she just kept on shaking her head like ‘yes’ as we said ‘Whitney’ she kept on shaking her head ‘yes.’ And I couldn't get on the phone fast enough and I was like, ‘Newell, it's Whitney.’ Newell couldn’t believe his ears. “I fell down – I fell down on my knees and I just go, ‘What does she look like?’  She says, ‘As beautiful as ever.’ And I was totally overwhelmed.”

Whitney suffered a severe head injury that put her in a coma and caused massive swelling.  Crash investigators identified Whitney from items found near her body… items belonging to Laura Van Ryn – whose family was just finding out that it was their daughter who had died.  Whitney on learning about the accident, ‘Finding out about the mix-up, I just remember being really confused and I knew that the Van Ryn family had been hurting that whole time, that they had been with me thinking that I was their daughter, being so supportive, they loved me like they would Laura.’ Newell said, “Whenever we've celebrated Whitney's life, we know the van Ryns have lost their daughter. But what's the great thing about Don and Susie is their faith in Jesus Christ.”   

Colleen agrees, “They're an amazing family and I’m just so thankful for the way that they loved and cared for Whitney.  They're wonderful.”  

Whitney progressed through therapy and that Fall she was able to continue her studies at Taylor University.  But the guilt of surviving that fatal crash still troubled her. She recalls, “I remember being like, ‘Why me?  Why me?’ and my dad was like, ‘Why not you, Whitney? The Lord can use you in a special way.’  And I think when he said, ‘Why not you?’  That's when it hit me like, ‘Yeah, why not me?  Like I can be a great advocate for the Lord too.’"

Whitney went on to graduate from Taylor and has since married and is raising a family with her husband Matt. Today the whole family loves to share how the accident strengthened their faith in God. Whitney believes, “Before April 26, I was just going through the motions and life was fine, but then reality hit and a huge tragedy came into my life and I chose Christ and that was the best decision that I've ever made.  And I would challenge anyone that's going through a tragedy or not, just to find that hope in Christ.” Her dad said, “Every time I see Whitney, every time I talk to her on the phone I'm reminded again of-of the blessing that we have in her life.  And the grandkids, I mean, it's – there's no end to our thankfulness.” And Colleen said, “I think that through the accident my faith became stronger because I totally needed his strength.  I mean, there was no way I could do it on my own. I really felt his arms around me. I really felt his strength, I really felt his peace, his words spoke to me.  It was living.  It was real.  And it was written for me.”

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