COLUMBIA CITY — Newell Cerak was the keynote speaker for the Whitley County Youth for Christ’s “Piece Rally” 2010 at the Eagle’s Nest Event Center Thursday evening. Cerak is the father of Whitney Cerak, who was misidentified after a truck-van accident on I-69 in April, 2006 when she was a freshman at Taylor University in Upland.
Newell Cerak is a youth pastor in Gaylord, Mich. At the time of Whitney’s accident, he was on a mission trip in Jackson, Miss., building houses. The call that his 18-year-old daughter was dead at the scene of the crash devastated him. Five weeks later, on his first trip after the accident, he received another call from his wife. This call was one he could not believe. His family had been told that Whitney was alive, in a rehab center in Michigan, recovering from her injuries. She had been misidentified as Laura Van Ryn, another student at Taylor, when, in fact, Van Ryn was dead and Whitney was alive.
“I want to thank everyone for their prayers for my family and for the Van Ryn family at that time. We aren’t the only ones who were affected by this accident,” said Cerak. “The families of the other five victims are still affected by it today. God has taken this story and used us to share it.”
Today, Whitney is thriving. She was married last spring, and is serving a mission in Africa with her sister, Carly. Her husband is serving in the military in Afghanistan.
The news of their daughter’s death was “surreal,” Cerak says. “I realized this was the first of many firsts for us.” For the next five weeks they all walked around with holes in their hearts and in their family. When that call came from his wife in the middle of the night, telling him that Whitney was indeed alive, he was afraid that something had happened to their only surviving daughter when he answered the phone. Instead, the news was one that brought him great joy, and more tears.
“Our pain became the Van Ryns’ pain, and their pain became ours,” said Cerak. “Our miracle was that Whitney had been alive all this time; we just didn’t know it.”
The road ahead for Whitney was not an easy one. She was determined to return to Taylor University as a sophomore just five months after the accident, even though she had hit her head violently in the accident and her brain had twisted on its stem. Although she remembered her family and knew who they were, and she could talk and function, she was diagnosed as seriously neurologically impaired. The analogy presented to the Ceraks by her doctor was of a beautiful forest (Whitney’s brain) destroyed by a big storm (the accident). After the storm, many trees were down and many were damaged. The doctor said there will be new growth in the forest after the storm, but it will be a different forest. That’s how it was for Whitney. She tested at the eighth-grade level, but went back to college anyway. That was a very hard year for her. She wanted to quit and made many phone calls home to her parents, who wanted her to finish the semester. She took another neurological test just before Thanksgiving that year, and tested out as a college sophomore.
“It’s amazing how God uses a situation like this to impact lives. These stories are the things we need to hear,” stated Cerak. “Our times are really changing today. We’re safe in God. When I was going through this, we had no idea we’d get Whitney back. It was made clear to me then that we are safe in Jesus Christ. I don’t worry about my girls. I want to see them as often as I can, but I don’t worry about them. This is such a short life, but we’ll have billions and billions of years together in heaven.”
A key turning point in Whitney’s recovery that first semester in college was when she began to understand that God loves her no more and no less than anyone else, noted Cerak. “Her identity had been snatched away. That was not her true identity, because our identity is in Jesus Christ. There is not one single person in this room that God doesn’t value. Where’s your identity? What better person to trust in than God almighty? What a solid thing to anchor to. Students need to know they’re safe in Jesus Christ, and that He will never change.”
Greg Woll, director of Campus Life at Indian Springs Middle School, presented the Whitley County Youth for Christ Leadership Award to Fred and Judy Geyer. The Geyers have guided youths for more than 40 years.
Larry Lance, YFC executive director, introduced the newest Whitley County staff members, Brad and Meredith Boyles. They have been in their jobs for just four weeks, but enjoy what they have seen and done so far at Columbia City High School. Brad spoke of YFC’s passion for “lost kids” and how that was his passion, to seek them out and help them welcome Christ into their life. Brad introduced Logan Rehrer, a senior at CCHS, who spoke of how YFC has helped him this past year and how he came to join it after being hospitalized a year ago.
“YFC definitely has helped me step out of my comfort zone and reach out, getting to know people and making a difference in their lives and mine,” said Rehrer.
Jonathon Pelz leads YFC at Churubusco High School. He believes it’s critically important for kids to hear a positive message, one with hope. He introduced Dylan Geiger, who went on a spring break trip with YFC because his girlfriend was going and he wanted to be with her. Before that trip, Geiger said he had no belief in God, even though he went to church every Sunday. During that trip, God told him to believe in Him. It wasn’t a big message, Geiger said, but it has affected his life. He does believe in God now, and is a study leader in YFC. He wants to witness to others what he learned on that spring break trip, and wants to help people.
At the end of the rally, approximately 15 middle school and high school students walked across the stage, single file, each holding a cardboard sign with a message about a belief they had before finding God and after finding God, emphasizing Cerak’s message of a “God-created identity; our identity is not up to us.”