Not the Man in the Mirror

by Randy Bishop

Beneath scars, a strong faith
and passion for life keep Joel Sonnenberg thankful.

A relaxing weekend getaway in Maine-that’s what Mike and Janet Sonnenberg, 32 and 29, were looking forward to as they traveled I-95 north from Nyack, New York, on September 15, 1979. Their son, 22-month-old Joel, and their daughter, 3-year-old Jami, would exhaust themselves at the beach, running and playing, Janet thought. Little did the family know that, before the day ended, their lives would be permanently changed.

Their nightmare began without warning as they stopped at a tollbooth just over the New Hampshire border. A 36-ton tractor trailer slammed into a line of five cars, two of which carried the Sonnenbergs. The driver of the 18-wheeler claimed his brakes failed, but police, after questioning those involved, speculated that he was trying to hit a female acquaintance in the car in front of him.

Joel, Mike, and Mike’s brother-in-law Doug Rupp, 27, were in the Sonnenbergs’ green Chevy. Jami, Janet, and Doug’s wife Kathy, 26, were in the car behind them. The women fled their car uninjured. But the Chevy instantly exploded into flames. Mike and Doug rushed out, their clothing and hair on fire, each thinking the other had grabbed Joel. Neither had.

As his flesh burned, Joel cried. In the midst of the confusion, motorist Michael Saraceni, 20, ran to the flaming car with a fire extinguisher. He heard the toddler and heroically pulled Joel-still secured in his car seat-out of the vehicle. Janet frantically screamed for her baby in the chaos. Kathy was the first one to notice the charred car seat on the ground behind them.

Janet, a nurse, could not believe what she saw. In her book, Race for Life, she recounts the scene: "(Joel’s) face was black. The hair was gone, and the top of the head was white. The eyelids were burned shut, charred and beginning to swell. The lips were burned off… The blackened arms, crisp with carbon, were outstretched and quivering." Joel had third degree burns over 85 percent of his body; only the skin covered by his wet diaper was untouched.

Janet sat in shock. Michael Saraceni squeezed her arm and said, "I saved your baby. He’s going to be all right." His prognosis seemed doubtful.

Emergency personnel arrived within minutes, throwing water on the car seat to cool Joel’s body. Rushed by ambulance to a southern New Hampshire hospital, he was then transported by another ambulance to Harvard Medical Complex in Boston.

The outlook was grim; Joel was given a 10 percent chance of survival. A few days later Joel was transferred across town to Shriners Burn Institute for the best treatment available, namely painful skin grafts.

For more than four months, the family was in turmoil-separated, living with strangers, torn apart by Joel’s suffering. Mike, a college science professor, spent time hospitalized with a severely burned hand. The generosity of local Christians, as well as prayers, cards, and financial support from believers around the world, kept them going.

On February 2, 1980, Joel was discharged from the Shriner’s hospital and returned home. He was badly disfigured-without any toes, without any fingers, and without one hand. But Joel was very much alive.

A new struggle for the Sonnenbergs began that day: to do everything possible for Joel to live a normal life in a world that would see him as "different."

What hasn’t Joel done?

Today, 21-year-old Joel is a junior at Taylor University in Upland, ‘Indiana, majoring in communications.

Joel spent parts of last summer at his parents’ home in Montreat, North Carolina, along with his sister Sommer, 17, and brother Kyle, 8. (Jami, 23, is a stockbroker in Indianapolis.)

Friends come in and out of the house. They play pool and video games. Sommer and Joel discuss who has dibs on the car (yes, Joel can drive) and whose turn it is to watch Kyle.

At different times, Joel spontaneously hugs his brother and sister-for no reason except he loves them. Laughter and smiles fill the living room. It’s indeed a miracle.

Over the years, Joel’s list of accomplishments has grown with him. He’s an Eagle Scout. He captained his high school soccer team, was voted prince at the junior prom, carried the 1996 summer Olympics’ torch through his community, and was named the Western North Carolina Citizen of the Year in 1996. He received a $17,500 college scholarship from Discover Card for his high school performance, extracurricular activities, and inspiring attitude toward life.

He has traveled to Bolivia and Savannah, Georgia, on mission trips with his church, Montreat Presbyterian. At Taylor, he was sophomore class president.

Joel lets his parents rattle off the achievements. He says awards are great, but they don’t allow people to see inside him. People can’t get to know him by hearing what he’s done. Rather than stand on his achievements, he wants to stand on who he is.

The man inside

Who is Joel Sonnenberg? How has he been shaped by the inexpressible pain, both physical and emotional, the torture of more than 45 surgeries, the continual stares from strangers and the occasional cruel comments like ‘Take off your mask"?

"I’ve never enjoyed the way I look, and I don’t like to look at myself in mirror all that much," Joel says.

Yet, somehow, he’s at peace with himself, with the man who lives inside a scarred body.

"As I’ve gotten older, I was shown by the Lord that it’s a true gift to be different," Joel says. He sees himself as a magnifying glass highlighting the power of God’s love. "That’s my purpose, to show God is good. God is so great in my life and He loves (others) just as much as He loves me."

This is the real miracle-a young man and his family who can recognize, in this situation, the grace of God.

"Everything happens for a reason. The greatest times in my life are when I reflect and see what God has done-all the provisions He’s had for me," Joel says. "I say, ‘Wow, there’s gotta be a higher hand in this’ … I’m confident Jesus is the only answer."

Tears and justice

This past July, Joel and his family had to put their faith into action in a New Hampshire courtroom during the sentencing of Reginald Dort, the truck driver who caused the accident that forever changed the Sonnenbergs’ lives.

After the 1979 accident, Dort jumped bail and fled to his native Nova Scotia, Canada, where he continued driving his semi. He made numerous trips across the border until he was tripped up in the summer of 1997.

At a weigh station in Moline, Illinois, the attendant noticed Dort’s truck was 1,300 pounds overweight. She reported him to the state police, whose records showed an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Justice finally caught up with Dort.

Dort was sent to the Rockingham County House of Corrections in New Hampshire, where he was locked up for almost a year. In May 1998, as part of a plea bargain agreement, Dort pleaded guilty to bail jumping and one count of second-degree assault.

On July 17, 1998, at his sentencing, Mike, Janet, and their four children filled the front row in the courtroom. Everyone but Kyle spoke to the court. After recounting the pain and suffering caused by the accident, each family member spoke of Jesus Christ’s power to transform lives and offer forgiveness.

As a part of her statement, Janet said: ‘The beauty of what we have experienced is that evil has turned into good-God has turned the worst devastation into beauty, into a powerful story that He is using for His own purposes. Today, I give Him all the praise for accomplishing so very much in Joel’s life and ours.

"I forgive Mr. Dort of his negligence and his destructive act… The Lord can make him whole with a new and purposeful life."

Then, after describing the pain Joel and the family suffered during the years of surgeries and dressing changes, Mike added: "I have come to hear you (Mr. Dort) say you are very sorry. When you ask for my forgiveness I will forgive, but I cannot forget. When you ask Jesus for forgiveness, He will forgive and forget."

The last person to address the truck driver was Joel.

"This is my prayer for you (Mr. Dort) … that you may know that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Grace has no limits and the world does not make sense without Him."

Tears flowed freely

Dort, 51, received a sentence of two to seven years in New Hampshire state prison for assault, with the maximum sentence suspended. He will likely serve two years, according to Assistant County Attorney Charles Benson. Dort was also sentenced to one year in jail for bail jumping, but he already served that time. During the proceedings, Dort didn’t address the court. But, at the request of Judge Douglas Gray, Dort turned to the Sonnenbergs and said, "I’m sorry."

Attending the sentencing was cathartic and helped close a chapter in their lives, Janet says. Both she and Mike agree that Dort, a man of little means and education, seemed to be a deeply wounded person. Mike felt that Dort, despite his lack of words, was truly penitent.

"I think (the sentencing) was a tough time for all of us, but it was something we had to do," Joel says. He did not speak with Dort personally, though he has not ruled out future contact. "Maybe I’d like to contact him again, but it’ll take some time. It will definitely be a private matter."

The Sonnenbergs hardly ever spoke of Dort before his arrest in 1997. Joel heard his name only two or three times growing up. Though in some ways the sentencing gave the family closure, they had moved on with their lives years before.

A lot more to do

There’s plenty Joel can’t do, like tie his shoes, but he’s not afraid to push the limits. He rides his bike, plays ping-pong and volleyball, and is a leading member of the student body at Taylor. His favorite verse is Philippians 4:13, "I can do everything through Him (Christ) who gives me strength."

Joel, baptized four years ago, is determined to experience life to its fullest. "I want to die saying I’ve tried it all," he says.

In addition to his student responsibilities, Joel is in demand as a speaker. It’s his calling, he says, to share how God’s unconditional love has made all the difference in his life.

Many people have told Joel he’s their hero. He loves it when people tell him how his testimony has changed them, but he wants everyone to know he’s only human.

"I’m not a storybook character. I’m a real person. I have emotions. I sin just like everybody else," Joel says.

When people stare or treat him insensitively, he sometimes gets angry, sometimes ignores them, sometimes leaves, and sometimes smiles. It’s always a struggle.

"I’m still learning to smile at people’s curiosity," he says. "All our Christian walks are a process."

Joel tries not to think about the future too much. He’s more concerned about doing as much as he can right now.

After college, he plans to continue with his speaking ministry and hopes to explore writing options. He wants to tell his story to as many as possible.

"He’s going to be someone who God is going to use in many ways," says Montreat Presbyterian’s youth minister, Shawn Stewart.

Joel, who has dated a few young women, hopes to one day marry a woman with that "Sonnenberg spark." He also would like to have children, which "would be the miracle of all miracles, icing on the cake-God’s cake," he says.

Ultimately, Joel’s hope rests in heaven. He’ll have hands and a new body, and he’ll be in Love’s presence forever.

"Death’s gonna be a cinch compared to all I’ve gone through," he says. "Heaven means freedom from everything-the world, the bonds of all our scars. I look forward to it."

Reprinted by permission, Christian Reader, Nov/Dec’98 Issue.