May 28, 2013 at 9:45 AM ET
An accident while sunbathing in her family’s driveway left Cindy Donald paralyzed from the neck down. The years of recovery that have since passed have drawn the 21-year-old former cheerleader closer than ever to the man responsible for the tragedy: her father.
“I think that it’s brought us closer together. You know, I think that I found a lot of purpose in my life through this,” she told NBC’s Jenna Wolfe in a TODAY segment that aired Tuesday.
Eight years ago, Donald was sunbathing in her family’s Atlanta driveway, talking on the phone with her best friend, when her father drove up.
“I heard him coming in the driveway. I never even got up, I just looked back like that, so I figured that I saw him, he saw me, or whatever. And so then I got hit,” she recalled. “He jumped out of the car. I just remember telling him, ‘You know, I’m okay. And I just can’t feel my arms.’”
Her father, Jerry Donald, didn't see his daughter until it was too late.
“That day that accident happened in the driveway, I'm there holding her. I'm afraid she was going to die,” he said. “She wasn't thinking about herself. She looked at me and said, ‘If I die, don’t blame yourself.”
But he did, and continues to do so.
“It was my fault. I mean, I wasn't looking where I was going. I was thinking about something else,” he said. “In one split second, her life changed and my life and my whole family's life changed.”
But his daughter said she has never felt the need to blame anyone for the accident.
“I just feel like things happen. I never blame God and definitely never blame my dad. I think I have a great life, really,” she said. “I'm lucky I've got a great boyfriend, I think. I've got a great family. I'm pretty much taken care of and I'm pretty happy.”
Her recovery was aided by an outpouring of support from her Atlanta community, particularly a group of fathers who meet daily at a local bagel shop for coffee and conversation. Moved by Donald’s tragedy, the so-called “Bagel Boys” helped organize numerous fundraisers to help pay for her rehabilitation efforts.
“Once you meet Cindy, it doesn’t take any convincing whatsoever, her spirits are off the charts,” said fellow "Bagel Boy" Fredi Gonzalez, who also manages the Atlanta Braves.
The group’s efforts showed Donald a different side of humanity.
“When I first got hurt, I didn't think the world was full of such good people and people that were really genuine and just wanted to help outta the goodness of their heart,” she said.
The group’s generosities inspired her to pay forward the unexpected kindness and compassion she was shown. Donald now runs an organization she created to help others with spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries.
“I feel like I can kind of reach a lot more people and touch a lot more people through my situation,” she said. “And hopefully, we can make a difference and make something positive out of it.”