When a young North Carolina woman relates her story today to a joint civic club luncheon on how an accident in the practice arena at the IFYR a year ago changed her life forever, she will talk about the many blessings which have come her way.

When a young North Carolina woman relates her story today to a joint civic club luncheon on how an accident in the practice arena at the IFYR a year ago changed her life forever, she will talk about the many blessings which have come her way.

Kelly Blanton, 18, from Taylorsville, N.C., returned to Shawnee Saturday with her mother, two best friends and a man she calls “her second dad.”

“There are a lot of blessings which have come my way,” she said. “Also, some friendships which weren’t healthy are not there anymore. They have been replaced with new friendships.”

Blanton stated it’s her “physical strength, which is still so weak” that she struggles with.

The joint civic club luncheon, which will allow Blanton and some of those who have accompanied her to Shawnee to relate her story, will begin today at noon at the Geiger Center at OBU.

The luncheon is sponsored by the Greater Shawnee Chamber of Commerce, and those who might want to attend should contact the Chamber early today at 405-273-6092 for reservations.

When first told a few months ago that people in Shawnee were inviting her to return to Shawnee this year for the 20th consecutive IFYR, she acknowledged she “was very hesitant, because I knew it would be very hard. But I also knew I needed to do it.”

Morgan Patton, from Dalton, Ga., didn’t know Blanton until that day a year ago when she suffered the paralyzing injuries. She had just completed a practice run herself ahead of Blanton, and when Blanton was bucked from her horse, Patton was the first to rush to her side and stabilize her.

Patton acknowledged she “wasn’t sure either” about returning.

“’Last year today was the day before I got hurt,” Blanton said.

Concerning her return, she said, “It was tougher than I thought it would be.”

Bailey Hewat, from Morganton, N.C., has been a friend of Blanton’s since high school. Hewat and Blanton, who reside about an hour away from each other, did high school rodeo together.

“I was at home and packing to leave for the National High School Finals Rodeo in Gillete, Wyo., last year when I got the call about Kelly,” Hewat said. “I was very tempted to fly out there but I knew Kelly would be made at me if I didn’t go on to the Nationals,” Hewat recalled.

She didn’t see Kelly until after Nationals, and by that time Blanton had been transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Ga., where she would spend the next several months, and has returned there as needed to continue her treatment for her paralyzing injuries. On Sunday, Blanton said, “It was easier Saturday than it was today.”

She and her family arrived in Shawnee on Saturday evening, and the first thing they did was go eat Mexican food.

“We were really hungry when we got here,” she said.

Because of all the anticipation, and seeing all the people, Sunday was more emotional for her.

She, Patton and Hewat were seated on a trailer Sunday evening as they participated in the ceremonies prior to the opening performance. Blanton recited the opening prayer, Patton read the names of those longtime IFYR volunteers honored who no longer were able to attend and Hewat read the names of those volunteers who have died.

Blanton said she considers Bailey’s father, John Hewat, her “second dad.” He did most of the driving on the nearly 1,000-mile trip to Shawnee.

Bailey Hewat attended Ranger Junior College in Texas last year. “It was really hard because I knew I couldn’t be there for Kelly. I asked Kelly if it was OK with her, and she agreed it was.”

John Hewat said “I would try to go see her in Atlanta as often as I could. It was about every other week. The first time I was saw her she was with Bailey and I didn’t know how to act for sure,” he related.

“She’s provided a lot of comfort and inspiration. I was going to her for comfort I think,” he added.

Blanton said, “I’ve always been kind of the strong one. I was always kind of the friend who left out. But my grandmother was the strongest person I’ve ever known,” she said.

Patton said since she has become such a close friend of Blanton, it has been good for her. “I was probably in some things I shouldn’t have been. It makes you more appreciative of the simple things,” she said.

Blanton said, “I think about who is going to take care of me and do all the things for me. Are my friends going to stay with me more than two hours?

“I’d like to get to take care of my horse every day,” she continued.

Blanton acknowledged, too, that she is in some pain 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Blanton said she was finally excited about Sunday night before entering the arena on the trailer.

She also said while she can’t sing or laugh anymore, she has learned not to take anything for granted.