‘I hope they look at me and see the power of God’ – Decatur teacher contemplates two years of injury recovery

Managing Editor

On April 29, 2022 Amber Johnson (now Amber Hooker) was just 24 years old, a teacher, and a coach leaving a track meet at St. Teresa High School in Decatur, when a young man drag racing his car at 109 miles per hour slammed into her car, severely injuring her and changing her life forever. But rather than giving up, Hooker has relied on her Catholic faith, the prayers of others, and a great deal of her own true grit to move bravely forward with her life. 

Hooker doesn’t remember the crash, which her family considers a blessing. Her injuries were life-threatening and terrified her fiancé, family, friends, fellow parishioners, and St. Teresa students and colleagues, who held in her fervent prayer, forming what was known as Amber’s Army. She says she is forever grateful for her “army” and all they have done for her. 

At the time of the crash, Hooker was transported to Decatur Memorial Hospital only to be airlifted four hours later to HSHS St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, a level-one trauma hospital. She suffered two brain bleeds, a number of broken bones, and was in a coma for five weeks — all while those who cared for her waited and prayed. 

Hooker says Father John Burnette, who is pastor emeritus of Ss. James and Patrick Parish in Decatur, was by her side when she first came out of the coma. “He was there nearly every day when I was at St. John’s. In fact, he was present for one of the first things I did to prove I was waking up out of the coma,” she said. “Father John prayed over me, and when the prayer ended, I shocked the entire room when he said, ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,’ I did the sign of the cross. That was the first sign I was waking up from the coma, and that I could not only hear but comprehend what was going on.” 

Waking up from a coma was the beginning of a long and harrowing fight for the long-time athlete to not only walk, but to run, again. From June 8 to July 28, 2022, she was an in-patient with Shirley Ryan in Chicago. She moved to day-rehab at Shirley Ryan until Nov. 16, 2022, and then returned to Decatur, where she did more out-patient rehab and worked out at home. 

During her recovery, she gave it her all. At therapy she was sometimes asked, “Are you willing to try this?” 

“My typical response was, ‘I’ll do anything if that means I’ll get better,” Hooker said. Some of the therapy workouts were focused on her left leg, which was severely impacted in the crash. However, Hooker says because she has “a runner’s mindset,” she was determined to get better.

“The word ‘can’t’ is not in my vocabulary,” she said. “So not a single time did I ever say, ‘I can’t do this.’ Not many people could go through what I did with a positive mindset. I’m grateful that I was the one hit rather than someone else. Not many people could go through what I had to do.

“I loved running so much that to be able to run on my own was a huge goal of mine, pretty much from the get-go,” she said. “It was a long path to accomplish that goal, and definitely not easy, especially because my balance was very off, but I never stopped trying.”

She says at the suggestion of another track coach, Todd Vohland, she asked one of her former students to help her run again. “Caleb Kernaghan is very near and dear to my heart because I first coached him when I was in college, and he was in junior high.  He was a phenomenal athlete, person, and student that I had the pleasure of teaching in high school. Caleb helped coach me back into running on my own, by myself, but that was a few months-long project.”

At the time of the crash, Hooker was engaged to her now-husband, Ashton Hooker, the man she calls her “rock and salvation.” After she awoke from the coma, and was still struggling with her memory, Hooker made a special request: “I set a goal of mine in June 2022, to remember the wedding date we had set, 6/3/23, before the car crash.” To help keep that date front and center, Hooker said, “I asked my nurses if it could be written on the white board in my room. The rest is history.  We kept the date.”

The couple was married at St. Patrick Parish in Decatur, with Father Michael Trummer celebrating the wedding. “We asked him before the crash if he would marry us because with him being the chaplain at St. T. (at that time), we had a strong connection to him,” she said. Because of her injuries, Father Trummer led several prayer services and wrote a special prayer for Hooker’s recovery over a year before he officiated at her wedding. 

That wedding was all she hoped it would be. “I tell people that Ashton had already taken the vow ‘in sickness and in health,’ but all jokes aside, I really don’t think I stopped smiling that day,” she said. “I told people it didn’t matter what happened that day as long as he was standing down the aisle.  I said as long as Ashton is standing at the other end, and we can unite our love, that’s all that matters that day.” 

These days, Hooker is working “slightly less than part-time” at a St. Patrick Grade School in Decatur because working full-time at St. Teresa proved too overwhelming. 

“After I was placed on leave, I prayed a lot. I sat upstairs and started yelling at God: ‘Why? Why God? What is my purpose now?’  Ashton was at home, and he heard me,” she said. “He put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘You might now know the reason why now, you might not know the reason why in five years, you might not know in 10 years, but eventually you will know.  God has a reason why.’” 

Providentially, before long, someone at St. Pat’s called to check on Hooker. “Not even to offer me a job, but I asked them what they had open, and the rest is history,” she said. Now she’s a librarian, teacher’s aide, and teaches first-grade science. Referring back to her days teaching theology at St. Teresa, she says, “I realize now that science and theology are perfect cross-curricular classes because you teach God’s perfect creations. We had to have a perfect designer with how the world works and was made and created.” 

As it turns out, Hooker is not only speaking to students, but it is addressing others as well. Last September, she was invited to speak at the inaugural Macon County “That’s What She Said” event. “I knew that I didn’t want to focus on my ‘could be’ tragedy because I wanted to be positive,” she said. “So, I turned my ‘could be’ tragedy into a motivational story, because that’s what it is. I hope that when people learn about what happened to me, they don’t feel sorrow or remorse, but they look at me and see the power of God.

“I really hope what I show is that I used God as my influence and motivation to get me through my battle,” she said.  She now wants to do more public speaking and uses the Amber’s Army Facebook page to “get my story across and promote positivity.” 

“I hope to be an inspiration to people and help gain believers. Long term, I will see what God throws my way, but I really hope to be a motivational speaker.” 

Hooker says she has many people to thank for their prayers and support. Her family and her husband’s family “have been huge” in their support she says, along, of course, with the members of Amber’s Army, who prayed, wore T-shirts in her honor, and helped in many ways. Everyone involved has, she said, “helped me in recovery and have been a huge source of joy.” 

Her road to regaining strength in her voice, walking, and now running has been long and arduous.  However, Hooker says that by forgiving the man who injured her so horrifically, she has been truly able to move forward in life.

On Jan. 31, 2024, Hooker, her husband, family members, and friends were in court as she gave a moving victim’s statement at the trial of the man who injured her, Rashean D. Vorties, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for reckless driving. The time leading up to that trial was unbelievably stressful, Hooker admits. However, that day, Vorties listened to what Hooker had to say, shook her hand, and apologized for what he had done to her — and Hooker accepted his apology. It was an emotional event for not only people in the courtroom, but for those who saw it in the media as well. 

“It always means a lot to me to see someone in an Amber’s Army shirt. I know that if anything or anyone were to do anything negative to me, I have people that have my back,” she said. “I will say I felt the most support the day in the courtroom … .  I had so much support that day, and anyone who wore an Amber’s Army shirt to court that day, it’s so much more than a shirt to me. It’s a person willing to show their support and pride that they’re a part of something and rooting for a person who is going through much more than they could imagine. Also, people wore their shirts that day and sent me pictures of them wearing the shirt. Obviously, they could have just told me they were thinking about me; people went so far to prove what that shirt means: Amber’s Army!” 

In the end, forgiving has made a real difference in Hooker’s overall well-being. 

Rashean Vorties, the man who plead guilty of reckless driving in a crash that seriously injured St. Teresa High School teacher Amber Johnson in April, 2022, was sentenced to ten years in prison this past January. This photo shows Vorties shaking Johnson’s hand in the courtroom this past January.  Photo courtesy of WAND-TV

“God didn’t take me on April 29. Jesus taught us forgiveness, and that’s what I could give Rashean, to make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else again. The only way to move on was to forgive,” Hooker says. “The easiest thing I had to do in the entire recovery was forgive the man that caused it. I hope the best for Rashean, and I hope he learns who Jesus is, rather than admit He exists. I feel like I know Jesus, and it’s not my job to dwell on the past. It happened, and that’s that. All that matters is the present and the future.” 

Not only is her life greatly changed, but prayer also is a little different now, Hooker says. “I go to adoration now, and I had never really been before. But, when I pray now, I always thank God for my life and what I’ve been able to do and accomplish,” she said. “Things that I do more now that I didn’t do before are read daily devotionals, pray the Rosary a lot more often, and I when I talk to God, I feel like I am talking to a friend, rather than a supreme being. More like a feeling of talking to someone on your playing field rather than a way higher being who looks down on you. I look at God as if He truly is my friend. I see God every day now.”