Counting blessings has become a regular part of Newman University student Cori Vigil’s routine.
In May 2016, the Vigil’s house in Dodge City was completely destroyed by a tornado. Less than two years later, Vigil’s husband, Clay, was in an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Even in the midst of these trials, Vigil is raising four young children, teaching at an elementary school and achieving her dream of earning her master’s degree at Newman.
“We take it one day at a time,” Vigil said. “My family members lean on each other and pray for strength, and we tackle one obstacle at a time.”
Immediately after she graduated from Dodge City Community College, Vigil enrolled at Newman to begin her elementary education degree. The Newman outreach program in Dodge City allowed Vigil to earn her degree in 16 months.
“The program was a lifesaver for me,” she said. “Classes were long, but instructors were very informative and flexible with students as they knew we all carried full-time jobs along with going to school.”
With only a summer semester of classes and student-teaching left, Vigil took a break from school. She married her husband, Clay, and soon had two children: a boy, Jaxson, and a girl, Paisley.
“My husband was a cowboy and stayed very busy so I stayed home with our kids,” Vigil said. “In 2014, I decided that I was so close to my degree and my dream of teaching that I needed to do whatever was necessary to finish.”
Vigil completed her student teaching at Sublette Elementary and graduated from Newman in December 2015.
During her student teaching, Vigil was awaiting the arrival of her and Clay’s third child. She did not attend the graduation ceremony in Wichita since it was so close to her due date, and on May 19, 2016, Hadleigh was born.
Five days later, a tornado completely destroyed the Vigils’ house.
Vigil describes the day of the tornado as being “pretty typical.” “My husband was out of town gathering cattle, so it was just my 3-year-old, my 2-year-old, my 5-day-old and me.”
In total, there were 17 tornados and funnels around Dodge City that day. The tornado was very short, Vigil said, and looked like a big, dusty gust of wind.
“It downed power lines on the highway and our dirt road, so we had to use four-wheelers to cross a corn field to make it to see what was left of the house,” she said. “We were covered from head to toe in mud because it had rained so much.”
Vigil added, “I remember looking at our home, our belongings, our life — and feeling crushed. It felt like a punch in the stomach, along with the overwhelming realization that we literally had nothing but what was on our backs.”
Even though it felt like the world was ending, word traveled quickly about the Vigil family’s home, she said. Within hours there were families, friends and strangers coming to their aid.
“People delivered baby supplies, clothes for the kids and for my husband and me,” Vigil said. “In those weeks following what we thought was such a tragedy, we found out just how fortunate and blessed we really were. Complete strangers were sending us messages of inspiration and aid. It was unbelievable.”
Months after the tornado, life started becoming more and more “normal” for the Vigil family.
Vigil and her husband worked together to make a new home for their three young children, and she took a job as a kindergarten teacher at Ross Elementary.
“Life was crazy, but it wouldn’t be life if it was any other way,” she said.
In 2017, Vigil was given the opportunity to enroll in English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes through her school district. Eagerly, she returned to Newman to continue her education.
Last February, Vigil delivered her fourth child, Kynslee. She planned to spend her maternity leave snuggling up to her newborn while catching up on coursework to finish her endorsement for ESOL.
But just 17 days after welcoming Kynslee, the Vigil family’s world was once again turned upside down.
“I will never forget that morning, because it wasn’t the same as any other,” Vigil said. “The stresses of life — work, relationships, young kids and a newborn had both my husband and I worn down, and for a lack of better words, broken. We were not ourselves at all.
“Clay had planned to be gone for a period of time so that morning as we rushed to get everyone where they needed to be we said our goodbyes and went on about our busy days,” she said.
Just after lunch, Vigil and a friend took their children to the park. “Watching the kids play, I was again reminded of how blessed I was, with four healthy kids and I was chosen to be their momma.”
Vigil added, “Kynslee spent more nights away from home … than at home for the first 6 months of her life, and was never sick, thankfully.
Playtime at the park was cut short when Vigil received a call from her husband’s co-worker, saying he was involved in an accident at work. He was running on horseback to rope a cow and could not feel or move his legs.
“Clay, being a cowboy and a bronc rider, has had many trips to the emergency room in our 12 years together,” Vigil said. “So I was of course concerned, but was familiar with getting calls regarding accidents. When his co-worker called back to let me know they were Lifewatching Clay to Garden City with intentions of stabilizing him, then flying him to Wichita, I knew things were more serious.”
Vigil called her husband’s family to inform them, called a family member to watch her three oldest children and drove to Garden City with baby Kynslee.
“(The medics) quickly realized Clay’s injuries would require surgery and he would need to be taken to Wichita for more scans and surgery,” Vigil said. “They told us that he broke his back from T11-L2. This break had caused some pinching on his spinal cord, which was causing the paralysis.”
The family flew to St. Francis Hospital in Wichita, where Clay had surgery the next day. They spent five days in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, then two weeks waiting to be transferred to a rehab facility.
“The news of such a horrific accident was devastating for me, but the devastation never overcame how thankful I was just for him to be alive. To be able to wrap my arms around him and for our kids to grow up with their dad,” Vigil said. “It’s an awful hand dealt, but I never can remember a time when we were ungrateful for life itself.
“After Kynslee’s birth and Clay’s accident, I was already behind on assignments for one of my classes,” Vigil said. “My instructor, Stacey Garcia, was so understanding and gave me extensions on anything I needed. I was so incredibly grateful.”
Clay was taken to a rehab facility in Englewood, Colorado, where Vigil and their four little ones tagged along. They stayed in Denver for five months as Clay completed therapy.
“I cannot thank Jessica Bird, Stacey Garcia and Rene Hopper enough for their grace and patience with me through all of this,” Vigil said.
With a good support system, life eventually calmed enough for Vigil to finish her classes and complete her ESOL endorsement.
“Clay is still in a wheelchair, but has regained some movement and feeling,” she said. “He continues to go to therapy to build muscle with the hope of getting strong enough to walk again. He is the strongest, most determined person I know.”
Vigil said her husband’s accident is a terrible event, but she knows it will not define the rest of his life.
“Clay’s accident was difficult in so many ways for us as a couple and as a family, but it truly saved us. It showed us both to slow down and to be thankful, to be alive and together. It showed us how important our family is and to be sure to make time to enjoy each other. It made us realize how much more blessed we are to have another day to make this life the best life.”
Even though life is “crazier than ever,” Vigil knows that she did not want to quit so close to completing her master’s degree. She is on schedule to finish her degree by spring 2020.
“I am as excited as ever to continue my education and could not imagine attending anywhere other than Newman,” she said. “Its availability and flexibility does not compare with any other university. Newman’s commitment to their students has shown me in turn what it means to be an instructor and serve my own students.”
Vigil says the obstacles her family has been dealt have restored their faith in God — both during the good times and the bad.
“I make lists, lots of lists, that help me see each step leading up to the bigger picture,” Vigil said. “I will say my husband is a rock for me. I can crumble under stress, but he is so carefree and saves me from drowning in anxiety. Anyone tackling a degree needs a rock or mentor in my opinion. None of us are superheroes, we cannot do it all. We need to lean on God, friends, family and even our instructors when needed.”
A Bible verse was presented to Vigil following the tornado: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)
“How true is that,” Vigil added. “All the bumps and twists in this life are part of a greater plan for us. If our creator is for us, rooting for us and cheering us on — what can stand in the way of dreams?”