On April 19, 1972, Verna Lafreniere rode her motorcycle on her way home from Wickford, Rhode Island, while her sister Vivian followed close behind. She was 18 and a second semester freshman at the University of Rhode Island. Her life would change forever within an instant.
That day, on her short drive home, a drunk driver struck her motorcycle. Upon impact, her gas tank exploded and her body was covered in flames. Her sister Vivian rushed to her aid and put out the flames, which Verna said saved her life.
Her pelvis was crushed, and both legs were broken, with 38 percent of her body burned. At South County Hospital she was read her last rites. After defeating death, she was told she would never walk again. At 18 years old, Lafreniere’s life had almost ended. But she said something inside her, a magic she still carries within her everyday, kept her alive.
“I had a nurse in the hospital that said ‘Verna, you can become bitter or you can become better,’ and I feel I became a better person because of it,” she said.
“I’m the luckiest person I’ve ever met,” said Lafreniere, followed by her infectious laughter that fills the Visitor’s Center at the top of campus with warmth everyday. For 7.5 years she has run the Visitor’s Center and is the first smiling face prospective families and students see upon arrival at URI. Her blue eyes gleam behind her glasses, and a dash of dark red lipstick surrounds her smile as she sits on her “throne” at the main desk.
“I’m very blessed and very rich in friendship,” said Lafreniere. “My friends came to see me often, my professors, my teachers, I had a lot of company and they kept me going.”
After her accident during her six months in the hospital, she spent almost two years in a wheel chair. Because URI was not handicap accessible at the time of her accident, Verna had to leave URI to go to the Community College of Rhode Island to continue her education.
“I was sitting in my wheelchair one day on my lawn at home and a white van went by and then came back,” she said. “We started to talk about my accident, and the gentleman in the van worked for vocational rehabilitation therapy and said, ‘Would you like to continue your studies?’”
“They ended up paying for the rest of my education,” she said of CCRI. “That just shows how lucky I am. It was incredible.”
Despite the odds, Lafreniere was able to walk again using crutches, but that has never slowed her down. Now, at age 62, she works full time, cares for her mother, and still makes time to have fun with her husband, family and friends. This week, she’s going to an Eric Paslay concert at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence.
Verna is living proof that the positivity you put into the world will always come back. She has the gift of making everyone around her laugh and the ability to brighten days. After graduating from Rhode Island College in 1978 with a degree in elementary and special education, Verna worked for a short time at the South Road School in Kingston, but did not find the atmosphere suiting.
“They said I smiled too much, I said, ‘That’s the way my mouth goes!,’” so she decided to move on to a different job. She worked for a few years on Block Island, but eventually decided to come back to URI.
“I love this place, I belong here, this is my home,” said Verna. “I love it because I meet the prospective students and then see them come back once they’ve been admitted, and we become friends, and I watch them grow.”
Not to mention, she knows someone or something about probably every place new students come from. Right on queue, a family walks in and provides their hometown, and Verna asks if they know the so-and-so’s from that very town.
Verna works alongside campus tour guides in the Visitor’s Center, many of whom consider her a true inspiration. Verna sits in a chair across from one of those students on her lunch break deep in conversation, laughing and joking like a 20-year-old. She then starts doing an imitation of how she dances to Lady Gaga while working out at her gym pool, and sends everyone in the room into fits of laughter.
It is no wonder those students who get the pleasure of working with her describe her as “incredible,” “hysterically funny” and “kind-hearted”. But those students get some credit too, since Verna cites them for what keeps her young.
“I try to live for today,” she said. Â “I work, I take a 20-minute power nap everyday and I go out almost every night because you only live once. Make it good and make yourself happy everyday.”