PEYTON, Colo. – “You have a choice to be bitter, or get better,” said Rai Henniger, speaking Aug. 9 to a group of high school students in Peyton, Colo.
While Henniger was setting up a fireworks display May 12, 2007, at Security Service Field in Colorado Springs, he says it was negligence that led to a powerful explosion. Someone had ignored a critical safety precaution.
The blast threw him 15 feet, leaving him with a 1 percent chance of survival.
“I probably should have had my head blow off, but I didn’t,” said Henniger, a survivor of severe brain damage and 20 operations. His left eye is glass. A rib bone aided the reconstruction of his nose, which he calls “Eve,” citing the biblical story of man’s creation.
“I don’t hate the people who did it – they were negligent, but I have a choice,” said Henniger, facing dozens of students finishing the Giving Everybody a New Educational Start in School program at Patriot Learning Center in Falcon School District 49.
He shared his life story at Patriot Learning Center through three morning sessions.
The school is tailored for youth who’ve been unsuccessful in traditional learning environments. Its weeklong GENESIS program helps new high school students better understand problem-solving skills, goal-setting attitudes and find value in teamwork.
“We’re preparing them for the skills they’ll nee to be successful in life, and PLC,” said teacher Eric Lustig.
The former Colorado Springs Sky Sox senior vice president had received training and certifications to dub as a pyro technician, so his minor league baseball team’s players and community could celebrate each game with fireworks. But he isn’t looking for sympathy.
“I’ve realized how precious life is,” said Henniger, who grew up with an alcoholic father, and then struggled with his own alcohol abuse in college. “Will you live life and treasure every moment? Or will you live selfishly, finding only what’s pleasurable for yourself?”
“No one is like you,” he said. “Each one of you is a unique and a wonderful person. You have challenges in your life, and gifts. Your journey is to discover them, use them for good, and leave this world better than you found it.”
Jawan Bolden, 19, was set to graduate in 2012 from high school – “I messed up,” he said. While listening to Henniger, Bolden says he felt gratitude for Patriot Learning Center.
“A lot of people at this school have been through some bad stuff… at schools or in their families,” said Bolden. “It really is amazing how (Henniger) kept good vibes, a positive attitude, through all his surgeries.”
“We’re not hear to look at the negatives,” said Bolden. “I’m just thinking about how glad I’ll be to have graduated from this school, where the teachers are like family, really supportive.”