KINGSTON TWP. — The first time Damon Szatkowski boarded this school bus, the driver introduced himself.
“Hi, Damon. I’m Tony and Tony spelled backwards is Y-NOT,” said Tony Monte, the 80-year-old Dallas School District bus driver.
On Saturday “Grandpa Ynot” volunteered to drive Damon — an 18-year-old head trauma accident victim who has epitomized the attitude of “why not” during his 17-month recovery — to the Dallas High School Junior-Senior Prom.
Damon and his date, Kendra Vanesko, and four other couples rode the yellow bus to the Genetti Hotel and Conference Center in Wilkes-Barre for the big event. Prior to the prom, a couple hundred people arrived at the Szatkowski home on Greystone Road to see off the young man. It was yet another remarkable turnout by the “community of Damon” that has supported him and his family since the Dec. 3, 2011 car crash that nearly took his life.
“A year and a half ago, we didn’t know if there would be a senior year for Damon, let alone a senior prom,” said his mother, Karen. “But this community — all of these beautiful people of all ages — have been here for Damon and us the entire time.”
And it was Monte — Grandpa Ynot — who went to the Dallas School District administration and asked for permission to drive Damon to the prom in the school bus.
“They were 100 percent for it,” said Monte. “But I wasn’t taking no for an answer.”
Kim Wood and her daughter, Lauren, decorated the bus. Purple — the color of hope — was everywhere. Damon, decked out in a black tuxedo with, of course, a purple vest and tie, and Kendra in her purple dress, got on board for the drive to downtown Wilkes-Barre.
“There are no words to explain it,” Monte said, fighting back tears. “I have such an attachment to this boy. And to think what he has been through and his family. I wish I could do more.”
Rich and Karen Szatkowski have been at Damon’s side since the car wreck in which he lost control of the vehicle while driving on Bunker Hill Road in Luzerne, went into a spin and hit a wall. Damon was wearing a seat belt; he wasn’t thrown from the car. But he sustained serious head injuries.
Uncertainty has been with them every day through surgeries, therapy and recovery. His left side continues to be affected. But his father said Damon set a personal record Friday at the John Heinz Institute, where he goes for therapy every day. Damon walked 50 yards in 15 minutes — with a walker and assistance — but he continues to improve.
“Every night we cross off the days left to the prom and graduation,” said Rich Szatkowski. “This one is here and he’s going to the prom and he will have fun. Now we will keep working toward graduation and walking across the stage for his diploma.”
Prom day was a different day for Damon — one in which he spent all of his time with his friends. Damon’s normal routine is therapy, then school, then home for rest and more therapy.
His date, Kendra, said she was thrilled to be Damon’s choice for the prom. “We’ve always been close,” she said. “This means a lot to him and me and all of us.”
And on the day before Mother’s Day, Karen Szatkowski said she couldn’t have received a better present.
“One year ago, on Mother’s Day, Damon smiled for the first time post-accident,” she said. “Today, he hasn’t stopped smiling.”