Her body crushed, but not her spirit

She thought her artistic abilities were forever taken away, then she found a new path.

In 2007 Un Joo Kang was in college and working as a makeup artist when a drunken driver crashed into her, crushing the lower half of her body.

But five years later, at Orange Coast College she found Extended Opportunities, Programs and Services (EOPS), which provided her with the help she needed to go in a new direction: architecture.

"I'm going to cry, but it's one of those things where I couldn't do that before and I can do that now," said Kang, a mother of two. "I shouldn't be walking, let alone be alive. People take so much for granted. I just don't anymore."

EOPS, a state-funded program, assists academic and socioeconomically disadvantaged students with academic counseling, priority registration and textbooks, among other services, said Vida Shajie, an EOPS coordinator and counselor.

Now, Kang, 29, is giving back while still dealing with her own physical and cognitive problems since the crash.

The Tustin resident, who was elected the vice president of the EOPS Honors Club, isn't content with just focusing on herself. She raises money for scholarships.

"It's healing, because when you've become a victim and you've lost control, it takes away your humanity," she said. "It's the most degrading feeling."

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'It was just so disheartening'

On Oct. 26, 2007, as Kang was loading up a parked Honda after working as a makeup artist at a breast cancer awareness show in Hollywood, a Mercedes crashed into the Honda.

"I was literally crushed from the waist down, and people thought I was cut in half," she said.

After being rushed to the hospital, where pins held her together, she was put into a two-day, medically induced coma and given eight pints of blood.

"It was one of those things were you see the light, and I heard a voice tell me I had a choice," she said. "All I could think about were my two children."

She underwent 12 surgeries. It took a year before she could even crawl.

Today, Kang can walk, but she still struggles with things like walking up stairs. She's had to rely on her family — no easy feat for someone who left home at 18.

"For me to always be so independent," she said, "and then come to this point where I had nothing, couldn't make anything — it was just so disheartening and depressing."

In 2009, Kang sat through and testified in the trial of the man who hit her, Harry Avakyan. He was sentenced to six years in prison for driving under the influence and fleeing the scene of an accident.

The collision stripped Kang of her ability to draw like she used to, like she did at the Laguna College of Art and Design, where she studied for two years. Furthermore, when she tried to go back to work as a makeup artist again, it was to no avail.

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'I learned it is OK to receive'

Kang's neurologist said she could go back to school, but the idea seemed daunting. She had difficulty reading because of problems with her attention span and her ability to process information.

But once at OCC, EOPS gave her counseling and helped her buy textbooks. Someone was also there just to talk with her.

"I learned it is OK to receive," she said. "I learned it is OK to ask for help, and that's what made me now want to give back."

Shajie said Kang, in her capacity as head of fundraising for the EOPS Honors Club, has raised more than $5,000 for scholarships, yet didn't apply for one herself.

"This is a selfless service that she is doing," Shajie said.

Shajie, though, saw Kang's amazing leadership, communication, organization skills and all the effort she put into raising money.

"I submitted her name for a scholarship," she said. "I thought, 'No, she deserves a scholarship'... She was very surprised. She was crying [when she won]."

britney.barnes@latimes.com

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

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