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Melissa in the Middle of Everything: The Melissa Mitchell Story
The following is an excerpt from an essay Melissa Mitchell wrote in 2003 entitled "AmeriCorps - Learning What it Means to be American.
It was written not long after she returned from living in France for two years while teaching English.
Her journey abroad began just two weeks after one of the most tragic days in the history of our country - September 11, 2001.
return to the United States, Mitchell
felt a deep grumbling within her
soul to reconnect with her
red, white and blue heritage.
Part of her
need was driven by lessons taught to her
at a very early age by her
mother that it is our duty to help others who need help.
The greater stirring inside Mitchell
stemmed from the fact that she
had left for France while the dark shroud of 9-11 remained draped over the shoulders of her
As the time for her
to return home drew closer, a feeling she
had missed - the surge of patriotism and the call to serve her
fellow countrymen - grew stronger.
I doubt many of us would have taken the extraordinary steps Mitchell
did one year after terrorists leveled the twin towers, to relearn what it means to be American.
Yet, when you talk with Mitchell
, even for a short while, you learn her
life is nothing less than a series of extraordinary steps one after another after another.
has cerebral palsy and has lived most of her
34 years of life in either a manual or power wheelchair.
It has done little to slow her
tenacity, intelligence and "can-do-anything and go-anywhere-attitude" is highly infectious.
As a little girl, she
was determined to be just like all the other kids regardless of the fact she
was in a wheelchair.
determination would leave her
hanging in the most unlikely places.
After about 10 minutes someone must have said, 'Where's Melissa?' " Mitchell
After that auspicious adventure, Mitchell's mom laid down a new law that simply said, "First figure out how you're going to get down before you get up."
Without realizing, it "Mom's
Monkey Bars Law" has become Mitchell's lifelong mantra.
It has infiltrated her
life in the most positive ways.
Again and again Mitchell
had to figure out how to overcome any obstacle, achieve her
confront any force that would dare attempt to rob her
dignity and self-worth.
A myriad of monkey bar moments has entered Mitchell's life since that day on the playground and each time she
has gotten up and then back down beautifully.
The Americans with Disabilities Act did not exist during Mitchell's school days.
There were no elevators or ramps that would allow Mitchell
to make it from one class to another on her
There were, of course, steep stairs, curbs and bumps that were less than wheelchair-friendly.
taught a few good classmates how to push her
wheelchair in just the right way to beat the bumps and curbs and make it to class on-time.
Even with a little support from her
good friends, Mitchell
was forced to endure the taunts of a juvenile classmate.
On several occasions the taunts turned to vicious bullying.
On one occasion the words and deeds became mean, ugly, terrifying and haunting.
They bombarded her
with hurtful profanity that seared her
spirit and left her
speechless and emotionally drained.
retreated to the sanctuary of her
The love of family and friends helped heal the brutality of the bullies rather quickly, but the scars remain in her
mind, even today.
reminds us that things are much different for kids like her
It can be just awful," Mitchell
experience with bullies may have been foreshadowing an opportunity to help kids who were different in the years to come.
had always wanted to be a journalist.
Even as a little girl she
dreamed of becoming a newspaper reporter and perhaps someday replacing Tom Brokaw on the NBC Nightly
steps toward achieving her
dream included being the editor of her
high school newspaper and a bachelor's degree in journalism and French from Central Washington University
vividly remembers as graduation day crept closer, fears of the real world crept closer, too.
It seemed to level the playing field, as well as dash the notion Mitchell
might be incapable of covering a five-alarm fire in the middle of the night.
At age 8, Mitchell
flew wheelchair and all, from Seattle to Prescott, Ariz., to spend two weeks with Nanna, her
Mitchell's mom carefully marked all of her
belongings with green ribbon for easy identification once she
The flight to Prescott was the beginning of Mitchell's lifelong love of travel.
With each subsequent journey, the miles and complexity of her
The real travel eye-popper was her
Folks were always amazed a young woman in a wheelchair would fly to a foreign country all alone without hesitation.
Everyone admired her
courage, but no one had a clue Mitchell
was armed with the lessons she
learned in the second grade on the
playground monkey bars.
Few knew she
had become a Zen Master at figuring it out, regardless of what continent she
wheelchair might be resting on.
There was virtually nothing she
could not do if given a little time, some MacGyver ingenuity, and an occasional Good Samaritan.
The figure-it-out skills she
learned as a kid then honed via her
travels became her
virtual Swiss Army Knife.
Her chance to replace Tom Brokaw never materialized, but many incredible opportunities Mitchell
could never have
In the summer of 2001, Mitchell worked as an intern in the governor's office for the state of Washington.
While there, she
was part of the state's team that helped roll out information regarding the launch of HIPAA.
wrote press releases, created newsletters and provided content for various websites as well as traveled statewide giving HIPPA presentations to diverse audiences.
As a Washington Reading Corp
touched the lives of many young children with various disabilities.
presence in her
wheelchair was an inspiration to the youngsters.
Her work with AmeriCorps helped restore dignity and hope to many communities in need, too.
Mitchell's years as the outreach and training coordinator for Mobility International USA provided information, tools and encouragement to members of the disabled community to travel and explore the world.
Currently Mitchell works for the University Center for Excellence on Development Disabilities and the Youth Enrichment, Talented and Gifted Program at the University of Oregon.
is truly in the middle of everything, but one thing that brings her
exceptional joy is her
Several years ago Mitchell
began the process of learning to train dogs to serve people like herself.
decision to learn to train dogs was generated from her
own failed attempt to acquire a service dog some years prior.
I waited for five years and still never got a dog," Mitchell
After much research, Mitchell
figured out there were no laws, rules or regulations to prevent her
from training her
own dog to serve her
So, of course, Mitchell
quest to find that one-in-a-million puppy that would not succumb to statistics, but learn the more than 80 different commands.
After months of searching and looking at many, many dogs,
It drives me crazy, but with my dog I learned a lot about patience," Mitchell
also learned humans are notorious for inconsistency, which could result in a bumpy relationship between dog and man.
For dogs to understand what the trainer wants the dog to do,the trainer's movements, gestures and vocal inflection must be the same, every time.
Without consistent commands, the dog will be become confused and frustrated.
Fortunately, Bastein was as smart as Mitchell
, and in no time they were on the same page when it came to patience and consistency.
They quickly became an awesome team.
Now, in her
spare time, Mitchell trains dogs to serve other people and is an official evaluator for the American Kennel Club
Canine Good Citizen program.
has taken her
newfound appreciation for patience and consistency to the workplace, too.
There are many words you could use to describe Mitchell
, but the one that seem to encompass all her
qualities is the word remarkable.
Seldom do you find someone with her
tenacity,intelligence and can-do spirit, but what really sets her
apart is her
is wise beyond her
Credit some of it to her
mother who refused to pull-any-punches when it came to teaching her
daughter the world would judg
eNews Nov/05 | Latest Issue of A World Awaits You Now Available--Read about U.S. Teens with Disabilities Going Abroad
Contact: Melissa Mitchell, Mobility International USA - firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth Emery, Associate Professor of ...
Elizabeth Emery, Associate Professor of French, Montclair State University and Melissa Mitchell, Outreach and Training Coordinator, National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange