Why I’m Participating in Relay for Life

Though I have never participated in Relay for Life previously, this year I felt a particular need to do so. As a current Master’s of Social Work (MSW) student, my fellow classmates and I are studying to become social workers who are able to best support the most vulnerable and oppressed populations, and my population of choice is children with special needs and children undergoing treatment for cancer.

In August of 2013, I began a year-long internship with Arts For Life in Asheville, NC that changed my life. Arts For Life is a non-profit organization in North Carolina that teaches art projects to children in the hospital. Specifically, I taught art projects to children with special needs and children undergoing treatment for cancer. Early on, I felt particularly drawn to the children I worked with because like them, I spent extensive amounts of time in the hospital as a child because of my Cerebral Palsy. While I was a patient at Greenville Shriner’s Hospital as a child, doing art projects was the highlight of my hospital stays. Therefore, to have the chance to provide the same happiness to other children was incredibly rewarding. I worked with many children and families throughout my internship who commented that I had changed their lives because of the joy I was bringing to them and their families. But truly, they were the ones who changed my life.

Please join me in raising money for anyone who is fighting or has fought cancer. No one should face such a hard battle, especially children!

Click the following link to donate and support me at Relay for Life: http://main.acsevents.org/goto/ameliacoonrod

To Those Who Taught Me To Dream

When I was little, I wanted nothing more than to be a ballerina. Around Christmastime, my grandmother would take me to see The Nutcracker at the Koger Center. As I sat up in the balcony in my checkered dress and patent leather shoes, I stared with admiration at the character of Clara. I imagined myself twirling around in my own leotard with a toy nutcracker in my hands, lost in the music and a dance that was all my own. When I got home from seeing The Nutcracker, I’d put on my leotard and tutu, grab a favorite stuffed animal at the time, and twirl in circles to the music only I could hear.

It was in those moments, in the safety of my childhood bedroom, that I began to dream, imagining doing things I knew I wouldn’t be able to do in reality due to my disability. I imagined dancing with a grace I had seen only in ballerinas. I put on my ballet shoes and twirled until my unstable balance got the best of me and I fell to the floor in frustration. I even remember asking my parents if I could take ballet lessons, determined to learn how to create the beauty I had seen in the character of Clara. The opportunity never arose though, simply because I didn’t have the balance to be a ballerina. Despite walking on my tiptoes, twirling around in circles on those same tiptoes was out of the question.

As I got older and I filled my head with more realistic dreams, I never stopped imagining doing the things I’d never be able to fully experience. I thought of dancing to the music of my world. I imagined running down the street and feeling the wind on my face as I chased the orange and red sunset I saw in the distance. I pictured myself climbing the huge oak tree in my backyard, wanting nothing more than to find a sturdy limb I could sit on so I could rest my back against the tree’s broad trunk and escape into my favorite book. The creative imagination I possessed placed me right into the worlds I dreamed, though I knew I was so far away from actually experiencing them.

I am forever grateful to the people throughout my life who have encouraged my imagination and dreams. Though I was constantly reminded by other kids around me of the things I was unable to do, so many of the adult figures in my life understood the importance of believing in my creativity. Because of those individuals, I have learned what it means to still hope and strive for the things that still seem a bit out of reach. Through my ability to dream, I developed a determination that has propelled me through my life, despite stumbling again and again. While I may not have had the chance to be a ballerina who twirls endlessly with the grace of a perfect melody, I have sung my heart out at a voice recital, capturing an entire room with the simple sound of my voice. I have participated in theatre productions, achieving my moment in the spotlight by being Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. I have written of specific moments of pain during the months following intense operations, creating the same tears in the eyes of my readers that I possessed during my moments of defeat. Though I may not have had the chance to live the experiences I longed for, I have continued to move to the song of my own life, continuously grateful to those who taught me to dream and create my own destiny.

The beauty of my worst fear.

I’m afraid of the day when I’ll no longer be able to walk.

I spent my entire childhood learning to walk so I could be as independent as possible, despite my Cerebral Palsy. Before my intense operations, I learned to walk in my own way, my knees knocking together as I put one foot in front of the other. During the years I spent on a t-ball team, I loved the feeling of running to first base. Even though I typically got out before making it to first base, I ran with all my heart just like everyone else on my team. I ran in my own way, but it never stopped me from trying.

After my first operation at the age of 10, I had to completely relearn to walk after having my femurs straightened out and kept in place with rods. One year later, when I got the hardware removed that was placed during my first operation, I had to relearn to walk yet again. See, not walking was never even an option for me. I wanted to be like the other kids my age, and to do that, I had to be able to walk. I had to be as normal as I possibly could. Even when I was faced with physical pain that made me want to curl into myself and give up all together, I kept going. Every day, I literally walked towards my own independence, one step at a time.

Because I spent so much of my life struggling, and ultimately succeeding, to walk, the thought of reaching the day when I’ll no longer be able to walk is completely terrifying. In so many ways, when I reach that day, it will feel like a kind of giving up. Though I plan to walk for as many more years as I can, I am scared of the day when the pain will just be too much, when walking will be putting too much strain on my body. It’s especially frightening because I know how much physical pain I’m in on a daily basis currently. The realization that I am in so much physical pain and I’m only 22 is terrifying. Trying to imagine my level of pain when I reach age 30 is nearly impossible.

That is one great thing about fear though. It has the ability to help us find the determination and strength we didn’t know we had. Yes, my worst fear is seeing the day when I will no longer be able to walk. However, I’m not there yet. I am a long way off from that day. Today, I am able to walk and do the things I love, despite being in pain. Today, I am able to push through the pain, because the result…the view at the top of the mountain…is worth it. The happiness, joy, and pure bliss of the destination weighs so much more than the pain of the journey.

The fear lingers in the back of my mind, the fear of knowing one day I won’t be able to get to the top of Max Patch, my absolute favorite place in the world. However, the fear also gives me the strength and determination I need to continue doing what I love. Yes, one day I may not be able to walk because of the amount of pain I am in. But I’m not there yet. I’ve still got plenty of fight within me.

Sharing My Story: A New Beginning

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Though this is not my first blog, this is the first blog in which I plan to focus solely on discussing my experiences of living with Cerebral Palsy and the process of getting these experiences eventually published. Specifically, my goal is to raise awareness for Cerebral Palsy and other disabilities and allow others to gain a deeper understanding of what it’s like to live with a physical disability.

To kick off this blog and a new chapter of sharing my story of living with CP with others, here is rough draft of the talk I have been giving to elementary and middle schools in Buncombe County since November 2013:

I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a disability that affects my nerves and my muscles, causing me to walk differently than most people. I’ve had multiple intense surgeries and 15 years of physical therapy. My Cerebral Palsy affects the way I walk because my muscles are really tight and because I don’t have very good balance. Because of being physically different, I was always an outcast in school. I had trouble making friends, and it was hard not having someone who knew what I struggled with on a daily basis. When I walk, it is very evident that I am different, and because of my visible differences, I was an easy target for bullying in school.

I had my first bullying experience when I was in kindergarten. At that age, I had to use canes to help me walk. Because of having to use canes, I wasn’t able to walk very quickly, and there was a girl named Ashley who enjoyed picking on me because she knew I wouldn’t be able to run away from her. Every day on the playground during recess, Ashley came up behind me and pulled my hair. It wasn’t a friendly pull either. She grabbed a fistful of my hair and yanked as hard as she could, laughing as I screamed in pain. She pulled so hard that I couldn’t even try to get away from her. Every day, I came home crying, and every morning, I woke up dreading having to go to school and see Ashley on the playground. I felt like crying when I realized I was completely alone and there was no one willing to stick up for me. One day, my teacher, Miss Sandy, came up to me and told me to hit Ashley with one of my canes to help her realize that what she was doing was hurting me. See, Ashley was mentally disabled, so she didn’t know any better, and hitting her was one of the only ways Miss Sandy knew to make her stop. I never did hit Ashley though. I couldn’t do it. Hitting her would make me just like her: someone who wanted to hurt someone else. I don’t think Miss Sandy really wanted me to hit Ashley though. She was just trying to teach me the importance of standing up for myself. In many ways, it felt impossible. How was I supposed to stand up for myself when it felt like I didn’t have a friend who would stand up for me?

I’ve struggled with forming friendships my entire life. As a kid, I wanted friends more than anything. That’s why I never told a teacher that kids were making fun of me. I became afraid that once I told a teacher, the people who picked on me would call me a “tattle-tale” and the other kids would distance themselves even more. Because I was so physically different from the other kids in my class, all I wanted was to feel like I fit in. In my early friendships, many of the people who became friends with me were my friends out of pity. Even though they didn’t specifically tell me so, I could tell it was true. I could tell by the way they looked at me that they felt sorry for me. When I was young, I kept those friendships anyway because all I wanted was a place where I felt like I belonged. However, many of those friendships didn’t last long because most of the people who had been spending time with me left when they got tired of pretending to be my friend.

It wasn’t until I became friends with a boy named Tommy in first grade that things began to change. Tommy was the first person to visibly stick up for me. He confronted the people who picked on me, telling them it wasn’t okay to pick on someone who couldn’t help that she was different. Tommy’s friends laughed at him for sticking up for me, but he didn’t care. He stuck up for me anyway and was there for me no matter what. Tommy also saw the numerous people who became friends with me because they felt sorry for me. He knew how much that hurt me. Even though Tommy wasn’t disabled, he saw how I cried day after day when another person I thought was my friend just got tired of trying. Tommy’s presence in my life didn’t stop other kids from picking on me, but I began to feel a little less alone. Even now, I don’t have many friends. However, the few friends I do have are incredibly close to me, and I am happy to say that one of those friends is still Tommy.

When I was in fifth grade, I took a required PE class. In my PE class, dodge ball was typically the game of choice. Every week in PE, I was chosen last for dodge ball. I even remember one particular day when one of my friends, Allison, was the team caption. This made me excited because I thought: Yes, finally! I won’t be picked last! Allison will choose me since we’re friends. Each team captain began to choose players, and I waited with excitement for Allison to say my name. I looked towards her with a smile on my face, but my smile faded as I realized she was picking everyone else but me. Finally, it came down to Miranda, a girl who had just broken her leg, and me. It was Allison’s turn to pick, and I started to inch towards her. And then you know what happened? She chose Miranda over me! Miranda, the girl no one liked because she was so mean, and the girl who couldn’t even move as well as me because she had broken her leg. I couldn’t believe it!

I was incredibly sad from being picked last for dodge ball, but you know what? That wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was seeing a girl named Rachel holding a dodge ball in her hands, a small smile on her face when she saw me, already eager to pelt me in the face with the ball. When the dodge ball game started, I hung towards the back. Despite dreading having to play this game every week, I knew a few tricks. I knew staying along the back wall was the best way to not get out immediately, and I knew I’d be one of the last players remaining on my team primarily for this reason. Therefore, the goal was to simply wait for the rest of my teammates to get out. You would assume the waiting part was easy, but it wasn’t. It was just more time I spent wondering how hard I’d get pelted with a dodge ball. Once none of my other teammates remained and I was the only player left, I allowed myself to look over at the other team. By that point, the other team consisted of six players, and they each held a dodge ball. Six against one, and I didn’t even have my own dodge ball for defense. The players on the other team looked back and forth at each other, trying to decide who would have the pleasure of getting me out. Honestly though, I don’t know why they took time trying to decide. They all knew Rachel had to be the one to do it. Eventually, I looked over at Rachel, staring at her just as hard as she was staring at me. Right before she threw the ball, I saw her chuckle quietly to herself. A few moments later, the dodge ball hit me right in the face. The ball hit me so hard that I lost my balance, falling onto the hard surface of my school’s basketball court. Initially, I could hardly breathe, much less get up off the floor. My PE coach came over immediately to help me up and to scold Rachel for what she had done. However, I doubt Rachel ever got the scolding she deserved because I continued to get pelted with Rachel’s dodge balls throughout my entire fifth grade year.

As I got older, I thought the bullying would stop, but it didn’t. The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I attended a creative arts camp. One day I was walking back from a creative writing class, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a girl named Lauren imitating the way I was walking. I turned to her and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” “Imitating the way you’re walking,” Lauren said. When I asked her why, she explained that she was supposed to observe and imitate people as an assignment for her theatre class. Even though I told her she hurt my feelings, Lauren didn’t listen. As I walked away, I watched as she laughed and continued to imitate me. I ran back to my room and cried, so sad and frustrated that I was still getting picked on. Even at an older age, getting picked on hurt just as much, if not more. Lauren knew what she had been doing. She saw how I cried in front of her, and yet she still continued to imitate me and laugh at me. I couldn’t understand why she would be so mean on purpose. I ended up telling a staff member about what happened, and she contacted the teacher to find out that the imitation was never a class assignment. The next day, though, something good happened. Lauren did the one thing I never thought she would ever do: she said she was sorry.

Being bullied, either physically or emotionally, is hurtful for anyone, but it’s especially hurtful if someone bullies you for something you have no control over, like a physical disability. My bullying experiences have affected me my entire life. I still remember the details of every bullying experience I’ve ever had. I still remember how alone and broken the experiences made me feel, and how it seemed like the bullying would never stop. Typically, kids in school try to be different because they don’t want to blend in with the crowd. For those kids, it’s important to stand out. In my case, I have always been incredibly different, and all I have ever wanted was to be normal and blend in. However, differences have never stopped me from trying to be as independent as possible. I have Cerebral Palsy, but I am a survivor.

**If you are interested in having me come speak at your school, please have the school counselor at your school contact me via email at: accoonrod[at]gmail[dot]com**