ROSEVILLE — Police Chief James Berlin saved the two youngest recipients for last at a citizen and police awards ceremony held during the regular City Council meeting Jan. 22.
Chester Staniszewski is only 8 years old; his brother Daniel is 6 years old. Chester received the citizens medal of valor for his role in saving his own life and his brother’s after the car they were in was carjacked this past fall.
Seemingly everyone in the room leaned forward with a smile when the brothers were called up to receive their awards. Most of the audience seemed to be there in support of them.
Standing in front of the room, they looked like average kids. Chester smiled and looked around from Berlin to his brother to the audience. Daniel’s head was down, but every once in a while, his eyes would sneak up for a peek of the room, and he’d giggle, adjusting his weight from foot to foot.
Yet, less than six months ago, they and their mother were the victims of a violent crime.
It was just before 9 a.m. Oct. 4 and their mom, Stefanie Staniszewski, was preparing to drop the boys off at school when she realized she had to run something back inside the house.
“Mom was getting ready to take the boys to school, and like all of us have done on many, many occasions, she had the boys out in the car and forgot something in the house, so she ran back in the house,” Berlin said. “She wasn’t gone for more than a matter of seconds.”
“I just had to put something right inside the door,” Staniszewski said. “I didn’t even have to go all the way inside. I saw him walking down the street when I was locking the door.”
When she saw the suspect turn up her driveway, she instantly raced off her porch and toward the car. He made it to the 2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee first.
“He sort of shoved me out of the way,” she said. “That’s how close I was to the car.”
Staniszewski hurled herself toward the car, screaming and pleading with the man to not drive off with her children. She refused to get out of the way; he could have her car, but not her boys, and he’d have to go through her to take them.
“This (suspect), a coward, rather than just stopping the car, putting it in reverse or going some other direction, ran Mrs. Staniszewski over, causing severe injuries,” Berlin said.
“The individual took off down the street, now realizing the two boys were in the car, and again because he has such ‘courage,’ he jumped out of the moving car, leaving the two boys to their own devices rather than just putting it in park.”
That’s when Chester jumped into action, unbuckling his little brother, opening the door of the moving car and, covering their heads, rolling them to safety just before the car crashed into a telephone pole at the end of the street.
“It’s amazing that someone so young could have such presence of mind, not only to think of himself, but also to think of his little brother first as they exited the vehicle,” Berlin said. “But, that’s when the little-boy part kicked back in.”
The two boys raced down the street, running as fast as they could toward their house. When they got there, they found their mother lying injured on the ground.
“Not understanding the severity of her injuries, they did what all little kids do when hurt that makes every boo-boo better: They went in the house, got some ice cubes and a Band-Aid to come out and help mom,” Berlin said, drawing a mixture of smiles and tears from the crowd.
Staniszewski was rushed to the hospital, where she was treated in intensive care for 24 hours before being listed in temporary serious condition with head trauma and severe leg injuries.
Staniszewski attended the award ceremony, showing little indication of just how serious her injuries were. She’s had one surgery so far, and doctors say at least two more await her.
For Staniszewski, the physical healing is just part of it.
“I can’t even begin to express the emotions that I have. They range from feeling so blessed and honored, happy and proud to be their mom — at least something good came out of this, they know they did something good, they are my heroes — to guilt. There is a lot of guilt,” she said after the ceremony.
“You read stuff like that on the news and it takes your breath away, my heart goes out to them, but then when it happens to you, it’s a different story. You never think it’s going to happen to you,” she said.
Staniszewski said she is seeing someone to help her work through the emotional healing process, and the boys are working with a school counselor. Even though they are young, they do have an understanding of what took place that morning.
“They will not even attempt to sit in a car, even if there is no key in it, without anyone present,” she said. “Nighttime is scary for them now. They worry if they hear noises. But for the most part, they are doing great. Their school, Pinewood Elementary in Warren, has been phenomenal. They have a counselor there that has taken them out weekly just to make sure they are doing OK.”
Unable to return to work until after the surgeries are completed, and without health insurance to depend upon, the Staniszewskis were concerned for a while, but they said their car insurance has been wonderful, and family, friends and even Staniszewski’s employer, co-workers and clients have pulled together to create a support system that amazes and humbles them.
“I have the best employer,” she said. “I work at Kitty’s Doctor in Grosse Pointe Woods for Dr. (Kim) Adrid. She’s been holding my job for me. She’s been so wonderful. She’s phenomenal. Everyone there has been. We’ve had so many people pour out with support. The amazing family that we have here today has been so helpful. We have a huge support system and that’s the thing that made us get through it.”
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