Looking back, Randy and Christel Simpkins can't really remember what their lives were like before their (then) two-year-old son Joe went missing. The event that proved to be a catalyst for change in their marriage and family was recently the subject of a feature film called The Way Home. Just after the film's release, I talked with Randy and Christel about their story and what it is like to have a very traumatic incident in their lives revealed to the world.
It's our Testimony
Put God First
We've Come So Far
Family Atmosphere on Set
A New Partnership
"It's been an incredible experience to see people's lives impacted by our story," Randy said. "That God has used us as a conduit is very humbling. The whole reason we did this is to hopefully have others learn the same life lessons we did that day. Both the experience making the movie and reliving all those emotions over again has brought it all back to the forefront in our lives."
Christel agrees. "A lot of what I faced that day was a feeling of failure and embarrassment. For many years I struggled with that and with the doubt that Satan puts in your mind about your abilities as a parent and a wife. I think that's the biggest way that I've probably changed – and not overnight, but through Randy changing and us coming closer together and raising our children together.
"It really hit me when we did the movie that God has brought our family so far from that day. We were so blessed and fortunate that we got a second chance to make things right and do things better. Not perfectly, but better."
It's Our Testimony
It was very important to the Simpkins and to director Lance Dreesen that the story be an accurate telling of their story and not an overdramatized version of it. "There was a whole gamut of fears and emotions we felt that day," recalls Randy, "but we didn't want it blown up.
"Our life is still right here in Carroll County with our friends. We hope the impact is huge, but for me I just got it that day. I was headed down the wrong path.
"For me, there's no question the greatest part of it was the epiphany of the direction I was going and the direction I needed to go. That happened immediately that day.
"Christel and I were at two totally different places that day. I needed to be broken and she needed protection, and I think God provided that for her. It was the realization that eternity is a long, long time, and our time on earth here is a speck of dust. The priorities I was focusing on were not eternal; they were here and now."
Put God First
The outcome of that day inspired Randy to reconsider his priorities and make some changes in his life. "[I needed] to put God first in my life. Not going to church or doing church things, but my relationships as my #1 priority in life, followed by my responsibilities as a husband and father."
He also determined to become more involve din his community, which lead to a position as county commissioner. His daily goal is to do something in each area every day, and he challenges others to do the same.
"What are we going to look back at on our death bed and wish we'd spent more time doing?" Randy questions. "I bet the answer is going to be time with God and time with family. For me, that flash-forward scene in the movie, I'm getting to live now.
"I'm getting to watch Joe play ball now. Zach and I went and played golf during lunch yesterday. Christel and I go on date nights, which we don't do as much as we'd like to, but I'm plugged into my family. Had that not happened to me 10 years ago, I would have continued down that path of wrong priorities."
We've Come So Far
Since the movie focuses so strongly on Randy's journey, Christel is often asked about her journey that day: what she was feeling, what she was going through before that. "I dealt with a lot of struggles," Christel said. "Depression, inadequacy, loneliness because Randy worked so much. He worked out of town a good bit, and I often felt overwhelmed.
"Doing the movie has made me realize how far we've come from that day, and how thankful and grateful I am that we made an effort – a conscious effort – to raise our children in a Christian home and to work on our marriage. I decided for myself that I had to make myself a stronger person so I could be a better parent."
Since the movie only touches on the things Christel was dealing with, she has written a book that will help explain why she was in the emotional place she was with Randy, the kids, and the events of that day. "The important thing was that we are real people who love God, had faith, but had faults. We sin every day, and for people out there, the thing they desire most is for people to be real.
"We talk about it in church – how we can be real with one another. We should depend on one another for strength and support, and let each other know our faults and weaknesses so we can lift each other up. This where we were, where we are, what we're doing. We're still facing a lot of trials and difficulties, but the point is we want to be real with one another."
Family Atmosphere on Set
When the movie was made, the cast and crew invaded not only Randy and Christel's lives, but their home as well. "At first, I was kind of scared of what the experience would be like," Christel said. "I thought it might totally turn our home upside down. It did turn into a great experience that the boys treasure and that we treasure also.
"The only room I asked to be off-limits was my bedroom. I had to have one place of sanctuary that the crew didn't infiltrate. They were very gracious and considerate.
"The boys just loved it. They'd wake up in the morning and the actors would be sitting in our den and they'd eat breakfast with them. They'd come home in the evenings, and for the most part we'd be done filming, so their day didn't get interrupted too much at all. The times it did, it was an enjoyment for them."
One of the boys did give up his bedroom because it was used as Joe's room in the movie. "It was Tucker's bedroom that we repainted" Randy said. "So he had to sleep in our den on an air mattress. It was also the room where the actors, with the exception of Dean, congregated in the morning. A standard morning would be Lori Beth and Sonny and other actors sitting on the edge of Tucker's air mattress, drinking coffee. At the appropriate time, they'd shake the mattress and tell him it was time to go to school.
"It was such a family atmosphere. I remember shooting the scene where they come and tell us that they found him," Randy said. "I remember it so vividly from that day, that when they were shooting the rehearsal for that scene, I was leaning up against a pine tree behind the camera, and I just started weeping. The actors came over and hugged on me – it was like that. We had such a closeness with the cast and crew. It was an amazing experience that we'll never forget."
A New Partnership
Randy enjoyed working with Lance Dreesen and his producing partner (Clint Hutchison) so much that three men became business partners. "My background is really project management and business, so it was a good match for us to work together. We're working on a couple of projects that we're hopeful are in the same vein – inspirational in nature.
"If we can continue to do projects that make a positive difference in other people's lives, I can't think of anything else I'd rather be a part of. I've learned so much over this last couple of years, and continue to learn from Lance and Clint, I would love to continue doing this."
Both Randy and Christel hope others learn the same life lessons they did that day. Though they don't understand why their story turned out so well when many don't, they continue to share their story wherever possible.
Randy and Christel Simpkins make their home in Carroll County, Georgia, with their three sons: Joe (13), Tucker (15) and Zach (17).
[ Read our interviews with director Lance Dreesen and star Dean Cain ]