Joe: Hello everyone and welcome to the Never Too Late podcast, the podcast that is dedicated to highlighting individual stories and successes that prove it is never too late to start or do anything in your life. We hope that this podcast will help our listeners discover their true potential and prove that no matter what stage of your life you’re in, or what challenge you have faced, there is nothing holding you back. My name is Joseph Sprung and I’m excited to take you all on this journey with me as I connect with people from all walks of life, and their stories. For those of you who don’t know me, I am in finance by trade, and love to give back to a variety of nonprofit organizations, and co-founder of Never Too late to Start, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to empowering female entrepreneurs at every stage and every age, to break down entrepreneurial barriers. We do this by helping them stay focused and encouraged, and providing tools necessary to grow and thrive. I am so excited for our first guest Deborah Marrs-Clay, who unfortunately lived through a very traumatic event. Almost 26 years ago, Clay was at a Douglasville, Georgia gas station when a carjacker put a gun to her head and took off with her and her 13-month-old daughter in the car. Deborah was shot in the head, and not expected to survive at the time. A state trooper came to the rescue – his name was Larry Schnall. He saved her life during the incident and is now considered her hero. 20 years after the incident, Deborah, even though she should have done it a lot sooner, decided to thank Larry and show her gratitude. In this episode, we hear her tell her story and see how much she embodies the idea that it’s never too late to overcome obstacles and to show gratitude to people in your life.

Hi, I’m Joe Sprung and welcome to Never Too Late to Start, the show that highlights stories of people everywhere who have proved that it is never too late to get started on a new path of success. Despite life’s challenges people are resilient, and our goal here is to share these stories of resilience that we hope will serve as inspiration. Here with me is Deborah Marrs-Clay. After two decades Deborah, who was carjacked and almost killed, met the state trooper who saved her and her daughter. Today we’ll be sharing her story and how she embodies the idea that it’s never too late to show gratitude. Deborah, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself.

Deborah: I grew up in Georgia, I had a great childhood, and I’m a substitute teacher at Westford High, High School. I have three daughters whom I’m very proud of and I’m visiting New York City today.

Joe: Well, welcome to New York and I hope you don’t find New York too scary these days after the pandemic. I know you hear stories about that, but New York is coming back, and New York will be coming back. Now why don’t you tell us a little bit about the day that this happened. Where were you? Where were you going? What happened?

Deborah: It was a normal afternoon. A normal day. Nothing to be afraid of or anything unexpected. I was visiting my sister in Douglasville, and it was 2:30 in the afternoon… I was on my way back home, I was in a safe suburban neighborhood, and I stopped for gas, and um… It was a normal day, then up from behind me I felt a force, and a man put a gun to my head. Picked me up and threw me in my car. He went across me with a gun the whole time, scraping my hand. And he said drive. My instinct instantly knew to drive, and I started the van and I asked him… You know when you have someone who has a gun to your head you do what they want, you don’t fight him. I ask which way do you want to go? And pulling out of the gas station, I notice a police car, and I motion to… this guy’s name was Oliver, and I motion “Help me”

Joe: How did you motion to him? Just with your hands? With your mouth?

Deborah: Just with my mouth. I said, “Help me.”

Joe: Were you able to see whether he saw you or not? Or were you… Did you ever know if he saw you?

Deborah: Later he told me, when he came to visit me in the hospital.

Joe: But at that moment, did you know whether he saw you?

Deborah: No, no, no. But later he did tell me that he saw it. You know, of course he wanted to help. And where did we go…. There was a high-speed chase. He was hanging out the window, shooting at the cop. And the cops were shooting at the tires of the van, trying to stop him. And um… the radio; funny thing, I remember this. The radio was on so loud and… the noise. Until you hear a gun shoot that close to you, you don’t realize how loud it is, and the noise was crazy. I asked him “Can we turn down the music?”

Joe: Do you remember what was playing?

Deborah: No…(laughs) I don’t, but it was… I just remember the noise. He never answered me back, because he…he was on drugs. So, I didn’t touch anything, I just sat there and did whatever I was told to do. My family thought “Oh God she was arguing with him or something”, (laughs) but no you don’t argue with someone who has a gun to your head.

Joe: Do you remember what happened after that?

Deborah: Um… he didn’t… he…just the high-speed chase pursuit, and I knew there were a lot of cops involved. You could see them everywhere and the noise got greater. And um, I remember thinking “God, just don’t let him get away with this.” Because I thought he’s going to go bury us somewhere, who knows you know. Just… just fearful. And my thought was “I’m the news.” You know, that was my very first thought, because you know nothing bad had ever happened to me. But you watch the news, and you hear about it, and I’m like “I’m the news.”

Joe: And what did you think about your daughter at that point?

Deborah: Oh, everything I did was for my daughter. Everything. That was my only concern, was for Elizabeth, she was 13 months old. I didn’t care about myself, I cared about her safety, and thank God, that was a comfort to me, I was very, very particular about how tight that car seat was in the car. I would take it and shake it, and make sure that Elizabeth couldn’t be moved in her car seat, and that was comforting to me. To know that she was very, very secure in her car seat.

Joe: What is the first thing you remember once you regained consciousness?

Deborah: I um… thought I had a nose job or something. (laughs) Because my face hurt so bad. I thought what have they done to me? Why am I in the hospital? Because the pain across the front of my face was so bad.

Joe: So, you didn’t remember being shot or anything?

Deborah: No, I did not myself, but my dad told me that I told him I was shot. I also couldn’t speak at that point, because I didn’t know it… but I was paralyzed on my left side, and I couldn’t speak. But I had learned sign language and signed to him “I’m ok.”

Joe: When did you learn sign language?

Deborah: In high school.

Joe: How come?

Deborah: Just for fun.

Joe: Just for fun? Cause I know you do work with children with special needs, so do you use that skill with them sometimes?

Deborah: Yes, yes you can use that with the kids, because they do notice physical movements.

Joe: And tell us about your recovery from the shooting.

Deborah: Uh… I never thought I was sick, you know. In my head, I’m like “I’m going to get over this, I have a 13-month-old baby. I’m going to be fine.” And they took me to a rehab hospital, and they put me in a wheelchair. I would get up in the night, and would practice going to the bathroom by myself, because they wanted to strap me down. Everybody was so afraid, because I was one of the first women, or people, to be shot in the head and survived. And uh… My recovery took a while, the physical part was fast. They sent me home from the hospital with a chair to take showers with, and I was like ‘“No, not going to happen” Um… I was pretty strong, but I was young, you know. The emotional recovery was almost childlike, I went from calling mom and dad to mommy and daddy. I was very childlike. My mom asked me one time “What do you want to do? What do you want to do for the rest of your life?” My mom was by my side for months. “You know mom I just want to stay home, stay home and be safe.” But my mom looked at me and was like “This is not you.” And so, the emotional part took a while…

Joe: So, what happened to the shooter?

Deborah: Oh, he had been arrested 21 times for violent crimes. He was out of jail illegally. He signed an alias, and they just let him out.

Joe: So, they caught him?

Deborah: Yeah, yeah…Actually Larry shot him. After Larry hit him and ran him off into the ditch, he was hanging out the van trying to escape, and Larry shot him through the chest.

Joe: Did he die?

Deborah: No, no. He was in the same hospital that I was in. Of course, they had police and guards all over the place because they were afraid my dad would, you know, like (laughs) go kill him or something.

Joe: So, what happened- Did you have to go to a trial? Or?

Deborah: Uh…I didn’t have to, but they asked me if I wanted to. And I said “Sure why not.” You know, it was all part of the healing. At the trial, of course he pled guilty, because there were so many eyewitnesses including the people who were working at the gas station. And um… his attorney asked me if I would allow him to speak to me. Because they wouldn’t have allowed him to speak to me. And I said “Sure”, and he had an orange suit and shackles, and he approached me, and he said “I’m sorry, I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart. Jesus came to me in a dream and told me to stand up and do what was right.” That’s what he said to me, and everybody laughed at it, everybody was like “Oh yeah sure…” But you know what, that meant so much to me, I believed him, you know. I felt it…that he was sincere. And it was so healing for me, that I didn’t have to… like… I never hated him. Or felt anything towards him really. I-I just felt sorry for him, or whatever happened to him in his life that made him such a violent criminal.

Joe: So, was Larry at the court with you at the same time?

Deborah: No, Larry was not there that day.

Joe: So why wasn’t Larry there? He would’ve been the perfect eyewitness to testify what happened.

Deborah: I’m not sure, other than it was pretty much a slam dunk that this guy was going to jail.

Joe: Ok, so then afterwards. What prompted you after… You know, 20 years to go back and try to find Larry?

Deborah: It was part of the healing process for me. Because really it took me – I think I noticed at the 16-year point, that all the emotional trauma within me has just vanished. And all of a sudden, I felt like I was grown again, I was well. And then I thought well I have to finish this journey and find the police officers, Larry in particular, because he was the one who was left alone in the end to rescue us. And even he said that he did all these maneuvers to get rid of the other police officers, he said “I was the last one. I knew I had to get to you.” And I said “Man, you know- I’ve got to find this guy, I’ve got to thank him, I’ve got to show him what we did.” What…Elizabeth, and how proud I was of her, and she was… I wanted him to see. And also, that was during a time, that everybody was trashing the police, and it was all over the media about the police. And I was like ok, without the police that day, where would I be, where would Elizabeth be? You know, there’s good, good guys out there. Good, good people that are serving us, and I wanted to thank him.

Joe: Did you feel embarrassed at all, that it took you so long to thank him?

Deborah: No, not at all.

Joe: A lot of times when people haven’t talked to someone in a long time, they are reluctant to pick up the phone, or to say that they’re sorry if they had a fight with somebody.

Deborah: Oh yeah, I wasn’t embarrassed, because I knew that he would understand that I had been sick. I was still in recovery. See, the brain is a very powerful healer, but a very slow healer. I knew he would understand. I knew he wasn’t…

Joe: So, because it took you so long to heal from the injury itself, that’s why it took you so long to…

Deborah: Correct.

Joe: What can you tell our audience that… It’s such an inspiring story about what happened to you. What can you share with us, to inspire other people who have not thanked other people in their lives who are important to them, who have made a difference in their lives? People who they’ve had fights with, and they haven’t talked to. You know you hear stories all the time, where family members don’t talk to each other for all this time – somebody needs to break the ice to do that. So, what can you share with everyone to sum up the courage to be able to do it?

Deborah: I would just say… Life is too short, you just…don’t know tomorrow. Tomorrow you could get killed, and life is too short. We should fill our lives with joy and forgiveness, just concentrate on how much power and strength you’ve got within you. You don’t… until you use your forgiveness you use your strengths within you, you don’t realize how strong you are, and how strong they are. And when you use them, you gain momentum and become more powerful within you to forgive, move forward, and be happy.

Joe: So, how would you say your life turned out now? Are you happy?

Deborah: I am so happy. I am so happy, and um… I have a great life. I’m thankful, you know I look at myself in the mirror, and I would’ve been the first one in line to say, “no way, no way, no way.” And I look at it, and I’m like wow…

Joe: And I know this weekend is a big weekend in your family with Elizabeth, so why don’t you tell us what’s going on with Elizabeth this weekend.

Deborah: She’s going to have a gender reveal, I’m going to be a grandmother, and I am so excited.

Joe: So, this is a perfect weekend, perfect time for us to have this podcast. Where you see what happened, how one moment where this man was there, and he basically changed the course of history by saving Deborah and Elizabeth and risking his life to do so. We now have… 24, 25, 26 years later?

Deborah: 26. February the 5, 2:30 in the afternoon.

Joe: 26 years later we have… A grandchild going to be born sometime in 2021 or 2022? When’s the grandchild due?

Deborah: 2022.

Joe: So, it shows any person at any point, you never know when you can make a difference to change somebody’s life, and how it can turn out. So, you always have to have a positive outlook.

Deborah: Yeah, you know bad things happen to all of us. To everybody I’ve ever known, even people who had the perfect life, bad things happen to us, and you just don’t give up. You just keep going, you just keep believing, believe in yourself, believe in the universe. You just… You just don’t give up. It’s black and white, you either give up or you go forward, and to me I was like, “I’m not doing this, I’m going forward”, and just keep doing it.

Joe: So, if there’s one thing in your life you can change, what would it be?

Deborah: Nothing. Nothing, I’m so good.

Joe: That’s great to hear, that’s great to hear, after you’ve overcome such a horrific experience.

Deborah: All of the experience you’ve had, you grow through. You do, I mean yeah- I wouldn’t want to go do that again, but I’ve grown, I’ve become stronger. I know who I am. I’m way better than I ever knew, who I was.

Joe: Thank you so much for sharing your story – you’re an inspiration to me and to everyone here in the room. And we look forward to hearing many great things. We’re dying to know what the baby is going to be. Please keep us posted when the baby is born. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Deborah: My pleasure to be here, thank you.

Joe: Thank you to all of our listeners. I hope that this episode has proven that it is never too late to overcome obstacles, and to show your gratitude to the people in your life. We look forward to hearing your feedback. Find us on Instagram @nevertoolatetostartconference, to let us know your thoughts.