Communities rally for girls hurt in crash
March 31, 2023
Angela Sjodin was sitting next to her unconscious daughter and thinking about the moments before everything changed.
"Let's go for a walk, Mom," Angela wrote of the day before her daughters Janae and Jaela were injured in a car crash on Friday, March 24, coming home from softball practice.
Angela recalled telling Janae the day before that she had work to do, charting for her social work job.
"Charting will always be there, I will not be," Angela wrote of the conversation. Janae was referring to her status as a senior at Wrenshall High School, and leaving for college in the fall. "I told her she was right and we went for a 5-mile walk. The best walk of my life."
"Not even 24 hours later, I sit holding her hand as I type this."
As of Wednesday, Janae was still in an intensive care unit at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth. She was airlifted from the crash scene south of Wrenshall, at the intersection of Carlton County roads 1 and 4.
The two Sjodin sisters were traveling in a Subaru Forester, heading south toward home Friday just before 7 p.m. They were hit by an SUV traveling west on County Road 4. The driver of that vehicle, Trinity Oakland of Saginaw, was unfamiliar with the road, according to her mother, Tonya, and, with the sun setting in the west and altering her vision, did not see the stop sign at the intersection.
Oakland and Jaela had minor injuries and were sent to Duluth by ambulance. Janae took the brunt of the impact, suffering a severe head injury and multiple broken bones.
Angela has been keeping the community informed on her daughter's progress on social media and the Caring Bridge website. Doctors are being cautious with Janae because of the swelling from the head injury, Angela said. Janae remained unconscious as of Wednesday. Doctors this week were taking measured steps to repair her broken bones. She had a successful leg surgery on Monday and her parents were awaiting word on an arm repair on Wednesday. Janae's pelvis, ribs and an eye were also injured.
"We will continue to hold her one good hand and rub her one good leg and kiss her head," Angela wrote.
Wrenshall principal Michelle Blanchard was heading to Cloquet Friday night to run errands. She saw the emergency vehicles and knew there must have been some kind of bad crash. Then she got a call from superintendent Kim Belcastro. Two of their own were involved.
"It's hard on all of us," Blanchard said Tuesday. "We're heartbroken."
Things were quiet at the school early this week. Counselors were on hand and staff were prepared to help any students struggling with the news, Blanchard said. While no students used the resources, there was a palpable weight on everyone, she said.
Pastor Paul DeVall from SonLife Community Church was at the school Monday. He is a coach there as well.
"You could feel the somberness," he said. He said the kids were doing OK, perhaps hinting at the fact that Janae will recover. Jaela was soon out of the hospital, dealing with a possible fractured arm. Oakland was also treated and released.
There was a vigil at DeVall's church on Saturday night. It holds 150 people and was packed, DeVall said. People were there for more than two hours.
Earlier in the day, basketball coach Emma Grover organized an open gym at the school, allowing students to come and process. She was worried about her basketball players. Janae was the star of the team, hitting the 1,000-point mark this past season and making the Polar League all-star team. Grover hadn't heard from players despite sending out text messages.
She knew the feeling. She was at a work event Friday night when her phone "blew up." "My heart just sank," she said. "I felt shattered." She didn't know what to do, and admitted, "I kind of froze."
She was five blocks from the hospital and decided to go to the waiting area there after informing the family of her intentions. She said the scene with grandparents, an uncle, friends and Janae's two brothers, Judah and Jeshua, was "surreal." She recalled a constant thought: "This can't be happening to one of our kids."
Smiles. That's what people instantly remark about when thinking of the Sjodin sisters.
"Sweetest kids ever," DeVall said. The siblings take part in some youth activities at SonLife. He called them "kind and caring" and from a family that "lives out their faith in God."
Angela's updates all week spell out that faith, about being tested and finding strength through that faith. She asked the community to keep praying for Janae's health and Jaela, as she deals with the trauma while home with extended family members.
Angela and husband Erick aren't new to this. Angela said she's often found herself on the other side as a social worker and now in hospice, comforting people dealing with health issues. Erick is a Minnesota State Trooper. In 2009, just nine shifts into the job, his squad car was broadsided by a drunk driver on Interstate 35 between Carlton and Cloquet. He survived with cuts and bruises. The damage to the squad was so profound, the state patrol put it on display at the Minnesota State Fair to warn people to look out for troopers along roads.
Angela spoke in court when the driver was sentenced. "I want this situation to have a positive end," she said. "I just hope that our eternal judge will be able to look at you and say you've been a good and faithful servant."
Angela's words of sorrow and encouragement in the past week have been a comfort for those who can only pray and hope Janae heals.
"I am seeing so many blessings in big and little things," she wrote. "Too many to number right now or tell you, so just know there is a beauty in this mess."
Coach Grover said Janae is "bubbly, funny and determined," and if anyone can get through this, she can. "And that comes from her parents," she said.
Grover sent word to coaches in the Polar League about the crash. She said she wanted to honor Janae at Monday's all-star game. A chair in the Two Harbors gym was set aside for her warm-up top. The coach was firm that the league not find a replacement for Janae. And, since Jaela was willing, she wanted Janae announced in the lineups and her sister to represent her.
Scott Ross, the activities director at Two Harbors and the one who announced the lineups, had to collect himself Tuesday when recalling the scene on Monday.
He said there wasn't a dry eye in the gym when 11-year-old Jaela came to center court, joined by Grover. People applauded, then rose to their feet as Grover and Jaela held each other.
"It's hard to talk about," Ross said. "It just hit everybody very hard."
As soon as Two Harbors students heard about the crash on Saturday, they brainstormed on how to honor the family and raise some funds. There is a tradition at the school called Miracle Minute, during which players go into the crowd during a game to collect donations for causes. In that minute Monday, more than $2,400 was donated by those watching the game.
"We've got great people up here who decided to see what we could do to help the family out," Ross said.
Grover said she was teary as well when standing with Jaela, a "tiny peanut with a big personality." When Jaela started getting emotional, the coach bucked up, and squeezed her harder. She's dealing with a lot, Grover said.
The game was going to be a highlight for Janae, Grover said, to cap a season that showed what a leader she was. The team was small in numbers and wins, and Janae "had to do many things," Grover said. "She's a leader. She just wants to be great."
Ross said he was shocked by the number of people from Wrenshall who showed up Monday. They were donned in "Sjodin Strong" shirts, posters and gave boisterous support. Members of Wrenshall's boys basketball team, all-stars Uriah Loucks and Carter Woodall, wore Janae's No. 30 in the boys game.
Ross said Two Harbors has been fortunate to host a number of the all-star games, and it's always a nice celebration to end the basketball season.
"It was emotional," he said. "I'm glad it was here."
Videos and pictures from the night were sent to Angela and Erick.
"My heart swells with pride for all of the players as my heart always did watching this girl play sports," Angela wrote.
It's the vulnerability that likely spooks teenagers dealing with the crash, Principal Blanchard said. It's the nature of youth to feel invincible.
"Something can happen any moment," she said. "I felt like a mother hen," she added of seeing a student leave the school Monday, telling them to "drive safe, use your seatbelt." In light of the crash, the words aren't hollow, she said. "We want all of our students safe."
Janae's brothers were at the school this week and Blanchard said they were in good hands, and being with friends was likely helping them.
"We just let them know they have our love and support," the principal said.
The school is on spring break next week. Blanchard said there are just small steps each day. "It's about getting through this week," she said.
Angela has been writing about vulnerability, and any parent can easily understand her thoughts, from a child as a newborn and now 18 and the school's homecoming queen.
"I remember the nurses handing Janae to us upon discharge from the hospital when she was born and Erick and I looking at each other like 'What? You entrust this amazing little fragile human to us? We know nothing.'" Angela wrote. "Here we are again, looking at our broken and bruised fragile little human, and our hearts are breaking and being bruised."
On Wednesday morning, Erick and Angela were back at the hospital after spending time with their other children.
Angela was eloquent again. "Erick held Janae's hand and looked at me and said, 'This is hard for a dad. A dad is supposed to protect their children. This is hard.' We are two broken people leaving our shards of shatter everywhere we go. ... When we read all your messages and see what our community is doing for us, little pieces of shards are put back in us. When I receive a hug, for that moment I feel like I am being held together by that other person."
There will be a fundraising event for the Sjodin family on May 6 at the Four Seasons Sports Complex in Carlton. The time is set for 3-7 p.m. and it will include a meal, silent auction and other events. A group has formed in Wrenshall to plan for the event and provide other support for the family. For updates on Janae Sjodin, visit her Caring Bridge site or follow social media posts.