Leeslyee Huerta waited inside her Bolingbrook home Friday, her brown hair pulled back in a cascade of curls and her nails painted in a subtle, sheer pink.
In her bedroom, a sparkling, pink tulle dress was laid out carefully on her bed. Next, a makeup artist would arrive to complete her look.
The 23-year-old spent all day preparing for a night she thought she'd never see: her high school senior prom.
"It's like a dream," Huerta said. "It makes me feel like it's my own."
Huerta was the guest of honor at Metea Valley High School's prom, after students at the Aurora school were moved by a presentation from her and the drunken driver who left her paralyzed. Huerta was 18 years old and in her last semester of high school when the crash occurred in the early morning hours of Feb. 11, 2007.
Nick Chodzko, then 21, had been drinking at a party and drove the wrong way on the Stevenson Expressway near Harlem Avenue when he slammed head-on into a van driven by Huerta's aunt. Huerta, who was asleep and buckled into a back seat, awoke in a hospital more than a week later. She learned her back was broken and she likely wouldn't walk again.
For years, Huerta said she wrestled with the "hate" she felt toward Chodzko, even as he tried to make amends by borrowing money to buy her a specially equipped van. But ultimately Huerta felt they should meet in order to move forward, and they connected last month with help from Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists.
Huerta said their three-hour talk allowed her to let go of her anger.
"You hear about drunk drivers who don't care at all about their victims. But I heard how his life had changed, I could tell he was genuinely sorry, and it made me feel so relieved," she said. "A few years ago I gave an interview with a Spanish language TV station, and they asked if I would ever stop hating him. I said 'No.' Now look where I am."
Chodzko, now 27, is in his second year of giving speeches about the dangers of drinking and driving, which is what brought him to Metea last week. But this was his first time speaking in tandem with Huerta, and the Metea seniors were extremely moved by their story.
"Students came up to me afterward at lunch and said things like 'I was planning to drink at prom and now I'm not going to drink at all,' or they would share stories of how drunken driving has already affected their families," Huerta said. "They felt a huge connection."
That's when Assistant Principal Joy Ross said she and the students knew they had to invite Huerta and her boyfriend, Jonathan Santos, to prom.
"We didn't even know if she was going to say yes," Ross said. "But she's been absolutely delightful."
Ross traveled to Huerta's home Friday to help her get ready for the dance that was themed "Midnight in Paris." Metea provided not only Huerta's makeover and dress, but they also organized flowers, a tux, limo and dinner, all donated by local businesses and students.
As Huerta waited for the makeup artist Friday, Ross unveiled her corsage: a mix of white flowers and silver ribbon, all attached to a bracelet of glittering beads. Huerta said the moment was so far removed from the dark feelings she had experienced for years.
"Back then I never could have imagined something like this," she said. "I kept wanting something good to happen and thought it would never come.
But she also said students must remember that even magical moments like Friday's prom can't erase the damage both she and Chodzko suffer.
"The truth is, I'm paralyzed," Huerta said. "Even though I forgave him, this is what's happened and I know he'll live with that for the rest of his life."