On April 7, the unimaginable happened — Karisa Clemens, 29, and her husband Jim Clemens, 31, were killed in a fatal car accident, which also took the life of their 2-month-old daughter, Juliana Clemens, as the family returned from a group outing in their native Texas. The Clemens’ four other children were critically injured in the accident.
The months that followed have been filled with challenges for Angela, 8, Zachary, 6, Wyatt, 5, and Nicholas, 2, as they have recuperated and navigated their new normal. And through the generosity of strangers, that journey has become a little easier — and filled with love.
The siblings’ story gained international attention back in April after Karisa’s aunt, Teresa Burrell, started a Facebook fundraiser to help raise money for the children’s care and medical expenses.
“At first I thought, has anybody thought to do a fundraising page?” recalls Burrell, 52, to PEOPLE. “I put it up there, and within 24 hours I think it was — I don’t want to say numbers, it was such a traumatic time that it’s a blur. But I think my initial asking was like $40,000, and within 24 hours we had met that goal. And within 48 hours, that goal had doubled. People were so generous.”
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As the children — from San Angelo — were “fighting for the lives” their story was going “viral,” Burrell, of Utah, recalls.
“The fundraiser became much more than just the money amount in the days ahead,” she tells PEOPLE. “Because when we started seeing the damage with the children and the reality of what lay ahead for the future — we’re really religious people, and we reached out to the global Facebook family.”
Calls for prayer and fasting were answered by total strangers, Burrell says. “The generosity was just so beautiful, and crossing cultures, and crossing faiths and crossing economic borders,” she explains.
And as the generosity mounted, so did the “miracles,” Burrell says.
Angela was initially in a coma after the accident, Burrell says, but soon “she began to speak and she could use her body parts — she could move her body. You don’t think about it, but that’s all about the brain. I was there, where I was laying in bed with her and I was reading a story and I realized her eyes were moving with me.”
She continues, “So I pointed to a line, and she read it back to me, so it was just to us, as a family, awesome.”
The four children now live with Burrell’s sister — their grandma, Susan Skillicorn — and her husband, Richard Skillicorn. The Skillicorns also have a 14-year-old daughter, Jaycee.
“The kids are doing wonderfully, they’re working together so both families can help,” says Burrell. “Wyatt was paralyzed on the left side, but within a month of the accident he was climbing the walls … he was just doing great. You can still see a little drooping a little bit on his cheek, but he’s doing wonderful.”
Zachary, she tells PEOPLE, still wears a back brace and will need future surgeries — as will Angela, “but they’re miracles.”
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“We’re not sure what lies ahead with Angela, with brain damage, but she’s gone to school,” Burrell tells PEOPLE. “All three of them went to school in September. … We were visiting, I want to say a month and a half or so ago … they were running around but trying not to run around. There was just lots of laughter and lots of happiness. There’s also sad moments of course, they miss their parents, they’re gonna need to have counseling — but their future looks bright, they’re doing as well as can be as expected.”
Skillicorn is still grieving the loss of her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, but she is focused on making the Clemens children feel “loved and secure.”
And the kids have “a bond there that I don’t know that we could ever understand.”
Though the fundraiser has now been closed after raising over $290,000, the impact still continues. And ahead of #GivingTuesday — which encourages people to help others less fortunate whether through a donation or giving time to a charity — Burrell thanks Facebook and tells PEOPLE, “Our lives have been forever changed due to the generosity of good people throughout the world.”
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