Surrounded by family and a whole bevy of friends a Stratford couple felt lots of love Thursday in a tree planting ceremony meant to salute their forgiveness of someone who had done them wrong.
Chris and Regina Dilbeck were clearly feeling humbled as the gathering was to honor their forgiveness of Austin Johnson, a 24-year-old Ada resident who while driving impaired caused a 2018 traffic accident resulting in severe and life-changing injuries for both.
Dozens came together to give the Dilbecks their day in the sun as a tree was planted in their honor at Stratford's city park – a site chosen by the couple because it's a place for the whole community.
It was about the Dilbecks and their large family forgiving Johnson, who only three weeks ago offered a collective gesture of mercy leading to Johnson being allowed to withdraw a guilty plea after he was given a five-year prison term by a Garvin County judge back in March.
“I'm humbled and blessed. We did it because it was in our hearts,” Regina said about the act of forgiveness.
“It just spread and touched other people and that's a good thing.”
Chris admits the whole journey – from the traffic accident to the pain from the ongoing injuries to Johnson's sentencing to the family's decision to forgive him – has honestly just been a bit overwhelming.
“Whoever would have dreamed this would have such a bigger meaning to so many other people. It's truly amazing,” Chris said as he stood near the tree being planted, officially called the “Forgiveness Tree.”
“Forgiveness was a group deal. Hopefully someone else will be inspired by what we did.”
It was back on July 7, 2018 when a truck driven by Johnson slammed into a vehicle carrying the Dilbecks as they traveled on U.S. Highway 177 back to their Stratford home. The accident left both in the hospital for nearly a month and needing help from others ever since for simple daily things.
Johnson later pleaded guilty to two felony charges of causing the accident by driving impaired. In early March he was handed a 20-year sentence with five of those years in prison.
Chris says the sentence for Johnson “broke our hearts.”
Then came a hearing in Pauls Valley on May 22 as Shane Moss testified his mother, stepfather and the entire Dilbeck family were firm in the belief Johnson should be forgiven for his actions.
Instead, the family wanted Johnson to get the substance abuse and mental health help he needed without going to prison. Johnson was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea as his case now goes back to the start of the judicial process.
“We didn't want Austin to think he got away with something, but we also feel this was something that was best. We wanted what was best for him,” Chris adds.
“When this came along it was a blessing for everybody. We never dreamed this would happen.”
David Keith of Oklahoma Heritage Bank in Ada, which also has a branch bank in Stratford, took a few minutes to address the crowd of people coming for the tree planting ceremony.
“When I talked to Regina she said she was having trouble sleeping because the young man got prison time. That's when the wheels of forgiveness began turning,” Keith said.
“We thank you for showing us how to forgive. We thank you for being a model on how to live our lives.”
Also chipping in to help with the ceremony were Big Red Tree Farm in Wynnewood for the tree planted in the Stratford park and the Stratford Chamber of Commerce.