We've Got Big Plans
Nick Walczak smiles and repeats the question, slowly.
"What do people not know about me?"
He raises his head, as if to think hard. "Hmm." He arches his eyebrows and points to his high-top sneakers strapped to the footrests of his wheelchair.
"My middle toe is bigger than my big toe."
His mother, Holly Cormiea, laughs from the kitchen in their Chardon home.
"Really," he says, reaching down to lift his right foot. "It's amazing."
His simple gesture — reaching toward his feet with both hands — brings Turner, his service dog, to his feet. Sliding out from under the wheelchair, the golden retriever circles the chair and faces Nick, waiting for a command.
"That's OK, Turner," Nick says, patting his head. "You're off duty right now. I don't need anything."
The dog walks around to the back of the wheelchair and slides back under it until his nose is resting in the small opening next to Nick's feet.
Turner was trained for 18 months by inmates at the North Central Correctional Complex in Marion through a program for the nonprofit group W.A.G.S. 4 Kids. After less than two months together, Turner and 19-year-old Nick are inseparable.
"This dog is absolutely amazing," Nick says. "He's always with me. He's my constant companion, which means somebody's always with me." He shrugs his shoulders and smiles. "With Turner, I'm never lonely."
Holly clears her throat and walks into the family room to stand near her son, waiting. She wears the face of a mother who knows where this conversation is going.
"I've got my car, I've got my friends and now I've got Turner," Nick says. "I don't need anything else. I'm ready to move out and live on my own. I need to be independent now."
Holly clears her throat again. "How are you going to live on your own?" she says, her voice rising. "You can't even make your own bed."
Nick takes a deep breath but says nothing. She shakes her head and returns to the kitchen.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Only weeks later, during an interview away from his mother's house at the Chardon McDonald's, is Nick willing to respond to his mother's comment. He starts by saying, "My mother means well." He says that repeatedly, but he also makes it clear he is undeterred.
"The test of anyone is to let me leave," he says. "The way I look at it, if I can get from the floor to the chair I can change my own bedsheet. Right now two corners of my bed are against the dresser and the wall. If I can move around the entire bed, I can change my sheets."
He reaches for a french fry and pops it into his mouth. "Turner helped me change my sheet the other day. Pulled the corner right off."
He looks down at Turner, who is next to the left wheel of his chair. Immediately, the dog raises his face to meet Nick's gaze. They are both — Nick in his hoodie, Turner in his service vest — wearing neon green.
"When I met Turner, all I could think at first was, This dog was trained in a prison and he doesn't feel close to me."
He shakes his head. "After a month together, it just clicked. I love this dog."
He scratches the dog's head, looks up and smiles. "He sleeps with me every night. I just have to say, 'cuddle.' " He hunches up his shoulders, closes his eyes and imitates snuggling with the dog.
"After the shooting," he says. He sighs, tries again. "After the shooting ... "
He reaches for another french fry, and changes the subject — sort of.
"I won Captain Crazy three times," he says. "It's like the class clown. You're in charge of school spirit."
He smiles at the memory.
"That was before," he says, still smiling. "Before the shooting. After the shooting, I didn't go to school for a few months. It took a while to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life."
He nods when asked if he now sees a future for himself.
"I do," he says, looking down at Turner. "We've got big plans."
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
It was the fourth bullet that changed the trajectory of Nick Walzcak's life.
The first three bullets would have left their mark, no doubt, he says. But the final bullet divided his life into two parts.
On the morning of Feb. 27, 2012, 17-year-old Nick was sitting at a table in Chardon High School's cafeteria. He was talking to friends and waiting for the bus to Auburn Career Center, where he was studying to become an electrician with a focus on renewable energy.
Then he heard a loud noise. "Like a bag popping," he says.
He turned to look, and saw a Ruger .22-caliber handgun in T.J. Lane's hand.
Within seconds, he was on the ground. He was bleeding, but he didn't know it.
"I was wearing a big, bulky coat," he says, "so I knew I'd fallen on the ground, but I didn't really know yet that I'd been shot."
He emphasizes what he could and couldn't do at that moment.
"I was bleeding — bleeding, but still able to walk." He says it again. "I could still walk."
If Lane had smiled at him in that cafeteria before he started shooting, Nick is sure he would have known something was up.
"I would have felt that wiggle inside me," he says. "That feeling that something bad was about to happen. But he was just standing there."
He pauses and smiles for no apparent reason. His habit.
"I remember three shots," he says. He points his finger like a gun and punctuates his words with jabs in the air. "Me, me, me."
One bullet ripped through Nick's forearm. Another pierced his shoulder. A third bullet bore through his neck and lodged in his cheek, where it remains to this day.
"Sometimes I can feel it with sinus trouble," he says. "Some doctors advise getting it out. Others say no." His smile reaches his eyes this time. "I will agree to removing the bullet only if I can have it and string it around my neck."
As soon as Lane started shooting, the room filled with screams and running students. One bullet grazed the right ear of Nate Mueller, who leaped over Nick. He is one of Nick's best friends, and to this day refers to himself as a "dick" for jumping over his friend.
"I should have done more," Nate says later.
"I wish he'd get over that," Nick says. "We all did the best we could."
Another bullet wounded Joy Rickers in the buttocks. Three other students collapsed on the floor around Nick. All of the boys — Demetrius Hewlin, Russell King Jr. and Daniel Parmertor — would die from their injuries.
Nick knew if he wanted to stay alive, he had to get out of that room. He pulled himself up and ran toward the cafeteria exit.
The gunman wasn't done with him.
"There is no doubt in my mind that T.J. Lane really wanted me dead," Nick says. "I was everything he hated. I was outgoing. I had a lot of friends. I could make people laugh."
Lane chased after him.
"I blur after that," Nick says. "Funny how the mind does that. I have a still image of a blank face and a gun."
Whenever he tries to remember what happened next, a few details float to the top.
He remembers having to decide which way to turn when he entered the hallway: left or right?
A stampede of students ran to the right, but Nick turned left. "To get to my car," he says. "I just kept thinking, I have to get to my car."
He remembers being about a dozen feet from the exit when he fell to the ground. This bullet, the fourth one, severed his spine.
"I just dropped," he says. His face landed on his book bag, which had been strapped to his back and flew over his head with the impact.
He remembers seeing Lane run past him, with assistant football coach Frank Hall in pursuit. "Coach Hall saved my life," Nick says.
He remembers math teacher Joseph Ricci dragging him into a classroom, and the principal's secretary, Jennifer Sprinzl, helping him make a cellphone call to his girlfriend, Brittany Hokes, who was locked in another classroom in the building.
"Mr. Ricci calmed me down," Nick says. "Mrs. Sprinzl told me not to call my mother yet. So I said I wanted to call Brittany. [Mrs. Sprinzl] said, 'Tell her, I've been shot. I'm OK. Please pray for me.' "
Nick also remembers the moment when he realized he'd never walk again.
"By the time I was on the stretcher, I knew: There goes my legs," he says. "It was a bunch of energy sucking into my body, and then letting go. It was a very odd, odd feeling. It was that moment when you think you're going to slide your knee up and get on your feet."
He shakes his head.
"That didn't happen."
He points to his paralyzed legs.
"As you can see."
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Monica Robins got to know the Walczak family while reporting about Nick for WKYC after the shooting. Nick trusted her more than most of the journalists clamoring for interviews, and over time Robins became friendly with his mother, Holly, too. (Nick's parents divorced in 2012.)
"It was Christmastime 2012," Robins says. "Holly and I were talking about what she could get Nick for Christmas. She told me, 'I'd love to get him one of those service dogs.' "
Nick overheard them, and dared to get excited. "I'd seen therapy dogs at the school, five or six of them, after the shooting," he says. "I thought it'd be great to have a dog who was here just for me."
The problem was how to find one. Frequently, service animals are expensive and can take years to get. But Robins knew Wendy Crann, founder and executive director of W.A.G.S. 4 Kids, which uses inmates at the North Central Correctional Complex in Marion to train dogs for children who need them.
At the time Robins called her, the cutoff age for W.A.G.S. was 16. "Honestly, I didn't think she'd be able to pull it off," Robins says.
"I went to 'no' first," Crann recalls. "We have this for kids because, to my knowledge, there's no other program for them to go to."
But after learning more about Nick, Crann changed her mind and convinced the organization's board to agree and permanently change the cutoff age requirement to 18.
"They couldn't find anywhere else to go," she says. "And Nick needed a dog."
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Crann leads the way to the training room at North Central Correctional Complex. She never misses an opportunity to educate others about W.A.G.S. 4 Kids and the inmates, who are waiting in a half-circle with their dogs.
Every dog costs about $17,000 or more to train for a year-and-a-half to two years; each family raises half, sometimes with fundraisers. W.A.G.S. 4 Kids raises the rest. Her decision to use prisoners was chiefly an issue of economics.
"I didn't go to prison to change lives. I wanted a cheap place to train dogs," she says, shrugging her shoulders. "And they can't get attached. They have to give the dogs away."
Tough talk, but she can't hide her affection for the men.
"You'll see when you meet them," she says. "The looks on their faces when they talk about this. I don't think we change people's lives. I think we give them a chance to make better choices for their lives. My favorite part is when you ask, 'Who helped train this dog?' and they all raise their hands. They all get to own it."
Dog training is an earned privilege for the inmates, who are serving time for everything from drug sales and armed robbery to murder. One infraction, and they can lose access to the dogs and dormitory where they live with them.
"We're held to a higher standard here," Jerry says during our visit to North Central in November. "Our living conditions are better. A lot of money goes into these dogs." (Cleveland Magazine agreed not to use inmates' full names out of respect for survivors of their crimes.)
A lot of love, too, but they joke they never call it that in front of Crann for fear of losing the chance to train.
"Crime is dehumanizing, and we're still human," Chris says. "We still feel love, and the dogs help us find that in ourselves."
Each inmate sits with a dog under his chair, a shiny canine nose wedged between his feet. The men are training three golden retrievers, two standard poodles and one goldendoodle.
They sleep in a dormitory separated from the rest of the prison. Each cubicle contains one bed for a human and a crate for a dog in training. The dogs rotate among the prisoners every few weeks to prevent attachments.
"We don't want a grief-stricken dog leaving the prison," Crann says.
The walls are decorated with paintings of some of the dogs they've trained as well as photos and letters of gratitude from the dogs' new owners, none of whom they have ever met.
Except for one.
When they found out Nick was 18 at the time, the warden asked Crann if he could come to the prison to help them train Turner.
"It was a very big deal for them," Crann says. "For the first time, they could hear directly from the person getting the dog, 'No, that's not how I get into my bed.' Or, 'This is what I need when I'm in my chair.' "
Nick agreed to three visits, never hesitating to meet with men who had committed violent crimes.
"I thought prisoners would be all muscle and tattoos, which was OK with me," he says. "I'm not scared of people. I'm just scared of guns."
Nick drove his Chrysler 300, a gift from the Chardon Healing Fund that is equipped with hand controls. His mother rode along.
"I was excited to go to a prison," Nick says. "I was being selfish. I was thinking, This will be fun for me. I wasn't thinking about how training Turner helped the prisoners."
The first time Nick visited, Crann and several prison officials escorted him and his mother to the room where Turner sat, surrounded by the six inmates who had taught him 50 commands.
Turner was W.A.G.S. 4 Kids' 48th placement. Like all the dogs before him, he was being trained to meet the specific needs of the young person waiting for him. Long before he met Nick, the inmates were training Turner to open doors, remove socks and retrieve shoes or anything Nick might drop on the floor.
He also learned to cuddle on command.
On that first visit, Nick rolled in his wheelchair into the center of the half-circle.
"Hey, Turner," he said.
Immediately, the dog ran to Nick, raising up on his hind legs and placing his front paws on Nick's lap so that he could lay his head on his chest and shoulder.
Every man in the room started to cry.
Nick's mother was overwhelmed.
"I wasn't expecting to be so affected, seeing all the men crying," she says. "The only time I saw a bigger smile on Nick's face is when he got his car."
It's a bittersweet memory for the inmates.
"We felt it in our hearts, seeing him go," Lavonia says. "But we know Turner's out there performing tasks for Nick. We're happy about that."
"As long as I've been doing this, seeing that made it real," Chris says.
The men grow quiet as they nod in agreement, their faces softening as they look down at the puppies at their feet.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Slowly, Nick is mapping his future.
Like most 19-year-olds, his confidence ebbs and flows. Like no other 19-year-old he knows, he has physical limitations that can challenge his resolve.
"My ideal plan was that I would have graduated from Auburn with basic electrical skills," he says. "I wanted to earn my high-voltage license, just like my dad. I would have applied to the union and hoped to get in. Once I saved a grand, I would have moved out. I never wanted to go to college."
For months after the shooting, he says he floundered, unable to conceive a different future for himself.
Initially, friends and relatives, including his mother, told reporters they were cautiously optimistic that Nick would regain feeling in his legs and walk again. Over time, long weeks of rehabilitation made it clear that was not going to happen. Difficult news for a teenager.
Brittany Hokes, Nick's girlfriend since eighth grade, says he is fighting a mighty battle every day that he tries hard to conceal, particularly from those he loves.
"Nick uses his humor to not let people realize everything going on in his life," she says. "Every little thing is 10 times harder than it is for you and me. Some days I can tell it's really hard for him, and he tries to protect me from it. Other days, on the days he's doing better, I can tell he's focusing on the future."
Nick admits as much, too. "That's about right," he says. "I'm not saying I never complain. I do. But what's the point of talking about this all the time? If we all constantly talk about what's going wrong in our lives, the world wouldn't be a very good place."
For a while, friends with good intentions made it easy for Nick to delay making plans. Until he got his car in the fall, they would pick him up and drive him around.
"For the whole last two summers I probably got out of my chair 20 times on my own," he says. "My friends always did it for me."
Then his friends started moving on.
"When everyone went to college, that's when I learned how to do it," he adds.
Nick and Brittany plan to marry, but when she started school this fall at Cleveland State University, she delivered an ultimatum.
"Nick feeds off other people," she says. "When he realized everyone around him was growing up, he also realized he was not doing anything. I told him, 'You need to get a job or we aren't going to make it.' "
It was the kick Nick needed.
He got a desk job at a local crane company, where he worked three days a week until January, when he quit to focus on full-time school. On Jan. 9, he was excited — his word — about having just signed up for classes at Kent State University's Geauga campus.
He also hopes to move into an apartment with his friend, Nate Mueller, who recently returned to Northeast Ohio for a job as head chef at a local hotel.
As is often the case with Nick and his new life, there's a caveat to those plans.
"If Nate can find a handicapped accessible place, I'm moving in with him, but I don't want to push him," he says. "If he finds a place he likes that doesn't have that, I want him to live there. I have a lot of friends with a strong work ethic who are willing to live with me. I don't want to hold anybody back."
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
The Chardon shooting altered Nick's life in another way after he began to recover: He became an activist for gun control.
Not instantly. As he readily admits, he never really thought about the issue before he was shot.
Nearly a year after he was paralyzed, he agreed to appear on Piers Morgan's CNN show. It was his less-than-stellar performance, by his standards, that ignited a desire to do more.
"I didn't have good answers," Nick says. "I didn't like the way I was stumbling with what to say. I decided I needed to learn more."
Nate had moved to Washington, D.C., for an internship with Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Slowly, he coaxed Nick into joining him in the cause.
They spoke at a gun control rally in Akron, where armed protestors stood feet away. In October, Nate asked Nick to join him in Washington to lobby Ohio members of Congress on a bipartisan bill that would have required background checks on all commercial gun sales.
Nick says Nate's transformation inspired him to speak out, too.
"Nate got serious with gun control," Nick says. "This jokester kid that didn't take school seriously is now a lobbyist for gun control. He's going to be the best man at my wedding some day. How could I say no?"
For the first time in his life, Nick was headed to Washington.
He and Nate met with both Ohio senators, including my husband, Sen. Sherrod Brown.
They also met with Rep. David Joyce, who was the prosecutor in the Chardon shooting until he was elected in November 2012 to replace Rep. Steve LaTourette.
"He hadn't read the bill," Nick says. "Didn't even know what it said. I couldn't believe it."
Nate was furious. "Joyce said, 'It hurts me so bad what happened at Chardon, these are the facts,' yada, yada, yada. I asked him if he was going to support the bill, and he said he hadn't read it.
"I lost my temper. I said, 'Really, dude? Stop talking about how you feel and read the bill — and then tell us what you're going to do about it.'"
In an interview in late December, Joyce was reluctant to criticize the young men.
"I'm not going to get into who said what," he says. "I thought it was a good meeting. I really applaud what they're doing. I'm proud of these two. They took what was a terrible tragedy and turned it into advocacy. I understood they were there to make a point."
Joyce admits he didn't read the bill before meeting with the young men. He won't say whether he would have voted for the legislation, which never made it to the House floor.
"We have to do something about mental health issues, safety in schools and address the issue of violent video games," Joyce says.
Every time the issue of gun control comes up with Nick, his demeanor changes. He expertly rattles off stats of gun violence, but it's clear the issue is also personal.
"Everyone says how big [the Chardon shooting] was, how huge, how global, how it just blew up around the world," he says. "What upsets me is that Chardon was so big, but it didn't stop the other shootings in Newtown, [Conn.], and Aurora, [Colo.].
"Better gun control doesn't mean there won't be any shootings," he says. "That 12-year-old middle-schooler, [Jose Reyes], in Nevada? What a little punk."
He shifts gears, as if talking directly to Reyes, who shot himself after killing a teacher and wounding two students last fall.
"You're probably the worst person in the world that it could cross your mind to put that gun in your backpack. You're angry? Go tell your parents. If you don't like them, go tell your grandparents. If you can't talk to them, go tell a teacher. It's not a weakness to seek help."
Nate understands his friend's anger.
"Most people have no idea what Nick goes through every day," he says. "All the physical issues with being paralyzed, with what he's going through.
"I've told him many times: 'If anybody was meant to be shot four times and end up in a wheelchair and go through hell, it's you. Because none of us could handle it like you.' "
Nick shrugs off the praise. "The gun issue matters to me. A lot. If one person can be saved from this trauma" — he points to his legs — "if one family can be spared this loss ... "
He pauses, takes a deep breath.
In recent months, Nick has joined motivational speaker Tony Robbins to talk about the Chardon shooting, and his growing determination not to let it define him. Late last year, he met with parents who had lost children in the Newtown school shooting.
"I don't intentionally try to inspire people," he says. "People go though rough experiences. My rough experience was just early."
In recent weeks, Nick has talked about a career in video game design. He is a fan of the popular Grand Theft Auto franchise, acknowledging that some would find his affection for such a violent game troubling.
"Video games have nothing to do with gun violence," he says. "Grand Theft Auto is fun because it's something you'd never be able to do in real life. It's supposed to be violent. If you can't control yourself after playing a video game, you weren't going to control yourself anyway."
He rolls his chair back and lifts it into a prolonged wheelie, which he says relaxes his shoulders. "I'm in a wheelchair. I have my dog, my friends and my games. My own virtual world of legs."
He eases his chair back down and, in typical Nick style, shifts to a joke.
"I have stretch marks on my biceps, they're so big," he says, pointing to my notebook. "Make sure you mention that."
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Nick was in the courtroom the day that T.J. Lane was sentenced to three life sentences in prison without parole.
Rather than showing contrition, the confessed killer peeled off a button-down shirt to reveal a shirt with the word "killer" handwritten across his chest and made vulgar references to the hand that pulled the trigger. Then he thrust his middle finger in the air.
Nick says he was unfazed.
"I didn't hear what he said. I saw him flick us off," Nick recalls. "It was a great day regardless of what he did or said. I was still glad I went in. He was smirking a lot, but whenever he looked at me, he stopped smiling. I don't know what to make of that. Maybe it bothered him to see what he had done."
This time, when asked again what people might not know about him, Nick doesn't make any jokes.
"There's a long of list of things they don't know about me," he says. "First, I want people to know how cool my friends have been, how I haven't lost a good friend out of this. I want them to know my girlfriend is a major support, and my mom, dad, brother and my girlfriend's family are a great support, too. And the community has been great. I want them to know they do matter."
He hesitates, looks around the McDonald's before continuing.
"One more thing: Somewhere in there let everyone know I don't forgive T.J. Lane."
"Because of what he did to you?" I ask.
"No," he says, shaking his head. "It's not about me. Look what he did to those three. Those three who died."
He looks down at Turner, who again raises his golden head to return Nick's gaze.
"Forget about me," Nick says in almost a whisper. "The hard part is over for me."
12:00 AM EST
January 24, 2014