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12 victims recovering after wreck

LAWRENCEVILLE -- On Dec. 23, a caravan of Just People Inc. buses was traveling from Norcross to an art class in Hoschton when one of the buses was struck by an alleged drunk driver.

The bus, carrying 14 people, crossed several lanes of traffic and crashed into a guard rail, injuring everyone on board, three critically.

In all, 12 victims went to area hospitals and trauma centers that day.

Today, all but one has been released to continue their recovery outside of a medical center.

"Most are doing really well," said Becky Dowling, Just People founder. "Great, in fact, compared to what we would have expected from the type of accident and situation they were in."

Just People is a Norcross-based, nonprofit organization that provides support services to adults with developmental disabilities.

For many clients, Dowling is the closest thing to family they have. So when she arrived on the scene moments after the crash, she found herself unable to approach the carnage.

"I just froze and wondered how many were dead," she said.

Miraculously, none were.

The most critically wounded, Mackenzie Hallmark, was rushed to Gwinnett Medical Center with life-threatening injuries that include a shattered pelvis, punctured lung and a broken arm, leg, wrist and clavicle.

She has undergone multiple surgeries and is facing months of recovery and rehabilitation, said her mother, Nicole. According to Nicole's journal on www.caringbridge.org, her daughter is in tremendous pain but remains strong and brave.

Visits from friends and her cat, Willie, have helped keep Mackenzie's spirits up in these most trying of times.

The other two critically injured victims, while out of the hospital, are being cared for in hospital-type settings, Dowling said. Each suffered a fractured back and neck, among other injuries, and also faces long-term recovery.

Everyone involved in the crash has been affected to some degree. Whether inside the bus that crashed or on board one that witnessed it, everyone at Just People has been touched.

The woman accused of causing the wreck, 32-year-old Joy Christine Wilson, of Lawrenceville, stopped briefly before fleeing the scene. She was soon apprehended and charged with driving under the influence and felony hit and run.

Police have since added 10 additional charges, including six felonies, and Wilson is currently being held without bond.

After a group trip just days ago to have stitches removed, the Just People gang is back to its normal routine, Dowling said. Those who have jobs are working again.

Their bodies were battered and bruised in the wreck, but their spirits weren't harmed.

"Their optimism is, 'Hey, we lived through it, we're not going to whine," Dowling said. "It's just amazing how they have just survived emotionally as well as physically."

Tuesday, the group finally made that trip to Hoschton and collectively painted a picture for their still-hospitalized friend.

It was a heart, Dowling said, and everyone applied a paint stroke.

"We count our blessings every day," Dowling said. "A lot of things we used to worry about, maybe we won't worry about anymore. Somebody's looking over us."