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Drive-by victim Karina Vargas is talking the walk

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"She talked about how after the initial sensationalism of her incident died down, she couldn't get any help," McLean says. "That was quite a contrast to what happened after the July [theater] shootings, in which anyone who was touched got help. That aggravated that sense of hurt and pain that she had. She felt left out."

Karina explained that while she's been able to get some primary care through the Children's Hospital Colorado Charity Program, the co-pay for each doctor visit is $50, which often leaves her family with little money to pay for prescriptions and medical supplies. Plus, she hasn't had any luck in accessing rehabilitative programs or physical therapy, which she believes are necessary if she's going to leave her wheelchair behind.

After meeting her, McLean offered to help. But he admits that he hit some walls. "We were not terribly successful in getting her the help that she needed," he says.

But he was successful in getting her out of the house. Together Colorado does a lot of advocacy for the undocumented community, and McLean asked Karina if she'd like to volunteer to help young immigrants fill out applications for an Obama initiative known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA, as it's called, is a form of relief offered to undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children; it doesn't grant them legal status, but it gives them permission to live and work without the fear of being deported.

"I was like, 'Well, I mean, I don't do anything, so, yeah, definitely!'" Karina recalls.

Karina enjoyed volunteering, and through the work, she met Will Dickerson, a dynamic young staff member at Together Colorado. In the wake of the shootings in Aurora and in the midst of this year's contentious debate in the state legislature over stricter gun-control laws, Dickerson and others were organizing a campaign against gun violence. They were looking for people who had experienced gun violence firsthand to speak publicly about it, and Dickerson asked Karina if she'd be willing to do it. She said she would.

Since then, he says, he's seen her confidence grow. "Her voice, in terms of speaking in public, has grown more secure," he says. "She's bold. It used to be that she was so nervous, and now I'll ask and she's like, 'Yeah, it's fine.' She's a very powerful voice, so it's important for her to be at the table."

Karina spoke at her first gun-violence-prevention rally this past spring. She also testified in front of the state House Judiciary Committee on a bill to require universal background checks for gun sales. She says it was awkward to wait her turn in a crowded hallway surrounded by people who were there to criticize lawmakers for trying to take their guns away, but she stuck it out for the opportunity to tell her story.

Her message was straightforward: If universal background checks had been in place on December 6, 2010, she might never have been shot. "That day not only changed my physical life, it literally changed everything," she said. "I was left with nothing. My friends abandoned me. I was left alone. Never would I wish this on anybody, because it's no fun. To this day, there's not one second that passes by that I don't wish that I could walk....

"I am here today to share my story and to bring awareness of what gun violence causes to innocent people in our communities," she continued. "For those who oppose this bill, [they] don't think it's a problem because they haven't experienced gun violence. You take your kids to school, thinking that they'll be safe, and the unthinkable happens."

The bill ended up passing the committee and went on to become law. Karina is proud of her contribution and has a few mementos of that time tacked to the purple walls of her bedroom. The biggest is a black sign printed with a stark message: "Let Us Live."

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On November 25, nearly three years after she was shot, Karina is in her room, flat-ironing her hair as an episode of Maury plays in the background. Stuck to her mirror are two Post-it notes, on which are scrawled a single message in chunky marker: "You don't have to look perfect, but always look cute!" Her school clothes, a pair of gray skinny jeans and a striped button-down shirt, are laid out on her bed. Today will be Karina's first day of school since she stopped attending almost a year ago.

Karina changes out of her Hello Kitty pajama pants and reaches under her bed for her blue high-top Chuck Taylors. She hoists her right foot up to her left knee, wedges the sneaker onto it and then places it on the edge of her bed while she ties the laces, making sure she doesn't accidentally roll herself backward before repeating the process for her left foot. On her way out the door, she grabs a pen and a handful of candy from her dresser drawer. "I think I'm going to need candy for school, for real," she explains.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar