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Paralyzed DUI Crash Victim Gets a Second Shot at Prom

Going to prom was a dream Leeslyee Huerta had long given up, until she met the drunken driver who put her in a wheelchair.

Tonight, Huerta will be a guest of honor at Metea Valley High School’s senior prom — thanks in part to 27-year-old Nick Chodzko, whose intoxicated driving left her paralyzed five years ago.

AAIM helps Leeslyee, other DUI victimsThe Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists is a nonprofit group that assists victims and families of victims of DUI crashes.

In addition to providing Leeslyee Huerta with a courtroom advocate, and filling her request to meet the driver who paralyzed her, the agency raised money to pay her family’s mortgage for three months, make a car payment, and buy her a computer so she can take online college courses.

Lorraine Wesolowski, an AAIM advocate, said many victims of DUI crashes struggle financially following such a devastating turn of events. “There are so many things that could make anybody buckle under the pressure,” she said.

For more information, visit www.aaim1.org.

Chodzko and Huerta recently met at Huerta’s request and, last week, appeared before a crowd of Metea seniors who were captivated by their friendship.

Now the Aurora school is treating Huerta and her boyfriend to the prom they never had — complete with a makeover, flowers, a dress, tux, limo and dinner, all donated by local businesses and students.

“I’m so thrilled to be going because we never got to go to mine,” Huerta said Thursday. “I’m going to use this moment as if it was mine.”

Huerta, of Bolingbrook, was 18 years old and in her last semester of high school when the crash occurred in the early morning hours of Feb. 11, 2007.

Chodzko, then 21, had been drinking at a party and ended up driving the wrong way on the Stevenson Expressway near Harlem Avenue when he slammed head-on into a van driven by Huerta’s aunt.

Huerta, who was asleep and buckled into a back seat, still remembers the sound of the collision and glass breaking.

When she awoke in a hospital more than a week later, she learned her back was “broken in two” and that she likely wouldn’t walk again.

For a year, Huerta was unable to go to court and face her offender.

She said she fell into a deep depression and, at one time, contemplated cutting her wrists.

“I was focusing so much on my hate, I was losing my life,” she said.

The burden began to ease when Huerta learned she was pregnant in 2009 — unexpected but welcomed news that gave her hope.

She also recognized sincere remorse in Chodzko, who she said borrowed money to buy her a specially equipped van to get around, even as his criminal case was pending.

Chodzko pleaded guilty to aggravated DUI in June 2010, receiving four years of probation and 480 hours of community service.

Huerta said she would never forget his apology in court.

“He said, ‘I’m very sorry, and I don’t expect you to forgive me because I don’t deserve that,'” she recalled. “He didn’t read it from a piece of paper, so I knew it came from his heart.”

Still, questions lingered.

Huerta said she wanted to hear what Chodzko experienced firsthand and find out whether his life changed as drastically as hers did. “I needed that,” she said. So at her request, the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists last month arranged a supervised meeting with them at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

They talked for three hours.

“It felt amazing,” Chodzko said. “We talked about what we experienced in the accident, what life is like now — just everything. She knows that I didn’t intend what I did. It was a mistake.”

“I told him, ‘I don’t hate you anymore. I don’t want you to feel that way anymore,’” Huerta said.

Chodzko also had no easy road to recovery. After the crash, he was in a coma for more than a month. When he regained consciousness, he learned his neck, elbow, ribs, femur and kneecap were broken, and that he had a traumatic brain injury that would require months of therapy and rehabilitation.

“I had no cognitive skills, no motor skills, no memory,” the Chicago Ridge man said.

Chodzko said he doesn’t remember the crash or much of the week before it, but he’s been told he was at a party before getting behind the wheel. He had no prior criminal record.

Chodzko is now in his second year of giving speeches about the dangers of drinking and driving, which is what brought him to Metea last week.

Assistant Principal Joy Ross said seniors watched a DUI crash simulation and heard a moving speech by Chodzko, who at the end pointed out “my victim” sitting nearby.

He told students that Huerta never went to prom or graduation, and it was his fault.

“That, in and of itself, was jolting for the kids,” Ross said.

Afterward, students met with the two in the lunchroom and talked.

“We really wanted the students to see how impactful this is, how emotional it is,” Ross said. “It was very surreal, very sobering.”

Chodzko said giving speeches brings him peace because “I know at least one person out of the group will listen to me. If I get more, that’s absolutely amazing.”

As for prom, he said he’s happy Huerta gets to go.

“I want her to enjoy it and for it to be memorable,” he said. “That’s her night.”

Lorraine Wesolowski, who advocated for Huerta on behalf of AAIM and helped arrange the meeting with Chodzko, described the situation as “absolute magic.”

Wesolowski, whose own daughter was killed by a drunken driver on Dec. 26, 1999, said she’s never seen an offender and victim connect in such a way.

“I’m in court with victims’ and defendants’ families all the time, and I see people hug and shake hands,” she said. “But this? I don’t know if I’ll ever see anything like it again. It’s a wonderful, healing thing.”

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