MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Seven years ago, rescuers in southwest Minnesota faced a horrifying scene when a van slammed into a school bus near the town of Cottonwood.
Four children were killed, and more than a dozen others were hurt. Many of the emergency workers knew the children and their families personally.
But from that tragedy comes a heartwarming gesture, seven years later, from a student who survived and went on to become valedictorian.
Now, that student is giving special recognition to those who helped him live to see this day.
For Sawyer Stevens, graduation time means it's just the beginning of a life full of opportunity, but one that he knows he can't take for granted
"I want to find a job where I can help people every day," Sawyer said. "I have come a long way, but it's not forgotten."
Stevens was one of several children badly injured in 2008 when another car hit his school bus. His road to physical recovery was a long one -- he fought broken bones, nerve damage and learned to walk again.
"He had a resilience -- persistence that I can't imagine having myself," his mother Kandy Stevens said.
The hardest wound to heal, however was emotional. Sawyer's older brother Reed was among the four children killed on the bus that day.
"He's still with me and watching over me from heaven," Sawyer said. "I still feel connected to him."
Sawyer and several other children were saved, thanks to the first responders on the scene.
"I hug them every chance I get, because we didn't lose everything we could that day," Kandy said.
The bus crash is still a vivid memory for Marshall Police officer Sarah Vanleeuwe.
"Some firemen from Cottonwood were on the ambulance crew bringing their own children in," she said.
Vanleeuwe was among the several first responders Sawyer invited to his graduation party from all over the country.
"They gave me a life back, and I should use that life to the fullest," Sawyer said.
Even though he's been through more in his 18 years than many will see in a lifetime, Sawyer's message isn't all that different from most eager kids heading off to college in the fall.
"Be grateful for every day, and for the people who got you where you are," he said.
Sawyer will head to the University of South Dakota in the fall.
The driver of the other vehicle was a 24-year-old woman who had no license and was in the U.S. illegally. She was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
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