This award is given in memory of Sheila Forsner who rose above her own tragedy and triumphed in educating and inspiring others.
The 2017 Award was presented to: Heather Lopez
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it for anyone else.”
This quote from Charles Dickens sums up, for me, the power behind those who have been severely
challenged by life, maybe feeling “less than” or “less able” due to a physical limitation, pain, or grief and
who, in spite of everything, not only move forward but reach out to others along the way to help lighten
a burden. I am reminded about my sister, Sheila, her strength, compassion and determination to help
others even while she herself faced overwhelming challenges. I am reminded about the people we met
while working with AAIM and the amazing capacity they have to offer help, hope and support in ways that
may seem small to others but mean the world to survivors and their families. I am reminded about the award given each year in Sheila’s name and all who have received it. Sheila, AAIM employees and volunteers, the award recipients, and the many survivors about whom we read in the AAIM book….have all embraced, at one time or another, the spirit of Dickens’ quote simply by being who they are, the inspiration they’ve inspired, the comfort and compassion they’ve given even in the midst of their own pain and, in doing so, have provided immeasurable comfort to those experiencing their own heartache.
Sheila, her husband, stepson and baby were traveling to our mom’s house when they were hit by a drunk driver. Three and half month old Alex, although strapped into his car seat, was killed instantly by the impact. Sheila’s stepson remained in a coma for several days and recovered physically over the following several months. Sheila’s husband remained conscious throughout, witnessing the unimaginable destruction of his family caused by one man’s choice to drive while intoxicated and impaired by alcohol and drugs.
Sheila remained in a coma for several months and, over the next five years, faced not only the intense grief of losing her son, her independence and the life she had with her family, she also faced the myriad of challenges caused by the traumatic brain injury (TBI) she sustained in the crash. She endured countless hours of physical, occupational and speech therapies. She had to re-learn many of the things we take for granted: how to literally breathe again after being taken off of a ventilator, how to eat, how to talk and find the most effective way to be understood as a result of her speech impairment, how to use the very limited movement she fought to regain in order to be as independent as possible. This consisted mainly of using her right arm as the TBI affected all of her motor skills and left her virtually a quadriplegic. She faced so many trips to the hospital as a result of complications due to her injuries, went into kidney failure and had to go on dialysis. Sheila died before she could receive the kidney transplant that had been scheduled.
A drunk and drug impaired driver killed Alex, Sheila’s first child, our parent’s first grandchild and our first nephew (in a family of six girls!). Alex was with us for what seems like the blink of any eye but his smile and ability to make others smile and feel such overwhelming love spans the years since the crash and defies the passage of time. One man’s choice decimated so many lives but ultimately did not take away Sheila’s independent character, strength, humor and compassion. These are the memories we keep of Sheila and Alex. There have been many additions to our family, nieces and nephews Sheila never met and who never had the chance to know Sheila. Alex will never know his older brothers and his cousins; his cousins will never know him. We talk about Sheila and Alex so the children in our family who never met them will know their names, hear about their lives so they can have the opportunity to have a sense of who they were and to know they are an integral part of the tapestry of our family. Sheila’s work with AAIM and her work with Pat Larson, which was so important to and valued by Sheila, resonate to this day and her family is so honored every year with the presentation of the Sheila Forsner Award. Sheila often told me that if, through her work with AAIM, she could prevent just one person from going through what she and her family experienced, then she would feel she had contributed something very worthwhile.
I believe she succeeded in her mission.
Patrice Heelan (Sheila’s sister)
Cathy Armstrong 1997
Nancy Foy 1998
Twyla Blakely 1999
Sally Hoffman 2000
Linda Irwin 2001
Bill Crowley 2002
Dave Perozzi 2003
Pam Kelleher 2004
Shelly Anderson 2005
Charlie Wooley 2006
Rita Kreslin 2007
Chet Stanley 2008
Lucy Romero 2009
Joel Mains 2010
Bob Cebrzynski 2011
Claudia Corrigan 2012
Randy Lounds 2013
Lisa Lilly 2014
The Olmsted Family 2015
Margaret Borcia 2016
From Back Row: Bob Cebrzynski, Joel mains, Chet Stanley, Rita Kreslin, Sandy Olmsted, Charlie Wooley, Shelly Anderson and Gerry Olmsted.
Seated: Twyla Blakely and Lisa Lilly.
Eleven years ago, Heather’s husband, Manny, was severely injured in a drunk driving crash. Manny had been working for the Breath Alcohol Section of the Illinois State Police at the time, making this ironic. Little did they know, that day their lives would be drastically changed by a drunk driver.
Manny suffered a broken neck, fractured ribs, five fractured vertebrae, a fractured and separated pelvis, scrapes on his hands, a big gash on the back of his head, a broken front tooth, a concussion, and a traumatic brain injury. Manny was in a medically induced coma for two weeks and spent six weeks in a rehab facility where he had to completely relearn how to care for himself, how to walk and just how to “do life”.
Heather’s learning “how to do a new life” wasn’t just helping her husband recover. She took center stage alongside AAIM by speaking at victim impact panels, high schools and community forums bringing awareness to the tragedies caused by impaired drivers.
Heather also works tirelessly to change the culture that accepts underage drinking as a rite of passage. Illustrating to high school students of the tragic consequences that just one poor decision can have on their lives and the lives of others.
Heather and her family are amazing; their desire to give back is endless. Heather also spends her time and talent to create gift baskets for AAIMs annual fundraiser and silent auction. Her willingness to go the “Extra Mile” is well known to the AAIM family and we are fortunate to benefit from her contributions.
Heather’s continued support of victims and lifesaving efforts make her a worthy recipient of this award. Congratulations!
THE IMPACT ON LIVES