SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — Verna Lafreniere has dedicated her life to welcoming tens of thousands of students, parents and visitors to the University of Rhode Island (URI).
Lafreniere is the first person to greet literally anyone who walks into the Robert J. Higgins Welcome Center.
And her smile is contagious.
Lafreniere has been living her life to the fullest ever since a brush with death more than four decades ago, when she herself was a freshman at URI.
Then 18 years old, Lafreniere and her sister were out riding their motorcycles when she was hit head-on by a drunk driver.
Lafreniere said her sister watched in horror as her motorcycle burst into flames upon impact.
“My gas tank blew up,” she recalled. “Thank God my sister was behind me because she ran over and put the flames out.”
If it weren’t for her sister, Lafreniere believes she “would have burned to death.”
The crash changed Lafreniere’s life forever, leaving her with broken legs and burns to more than 38% of her body.
When she first arrived at the hospital, the doctors weren’t sure if she was going to make it.
“They gave me my Last Rites,” she recalled.
But Lafreniere didn’t die, and instead spent nearly six months recovering in the hospital.
“I feel like I’m the luckiest person on Earth,” she said. “The good Lord has always been there watching over me.”
Lafreniere said her recovery was both physically and emotionally taxing at times.
“One nurse said to me, ‘You’re going to get bitter or you’re going to get better, and I hope you get better,’ … and I did,” she said. “I’m a better person because of it.”
When Lafreniere finally returned home, she spent two years in a wheelchair.
Lafreniere said returning to URI to continue her studies was impossible because the campus wasn’t handicap accessible at the time.
“I had a rough time … I got very depressed,” she said. “They said I would never be able to walk again.”
But with the help of a determined physical therapist, Lafreniere grew stronger and eventually learned to walk with crutches.
“He pushed and pushed and got me walking again,” she said.
Lafreniere later enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Rhode Island College in elementary and special education.
But her heart remained at URI, where she eventually landed a gig as an information aide.
It’s a gig she loves, and one she’s held for almost 16 years.
“Every day is a good day,” Lafreniere said. “I always tell the kids, ‘If you’re not having a good day, try to find something good in your day.'”
When asked how she finds something good in each of her days, Lafreniere said she simply manifests it.
“On the way to work I’ll see something, like a flock of birds or a tree or a bush, and I just think ‘That’s a good sign for a good day,'” she explained. “Then when I get here, it’s great. Students come in, and we walk and laugh. We have fun every day.”
When asked whether she plans to retire soon, Lafreniere said absolutely not.
“People ask me that all the time, ‘What are you still doing here?'” she said. “Why not? It’s a wonderful place to be.”