Ivy Leaf - Spring 2010

The view from here

By Marissa Carney


I'm spinning in circles,
clutching the control
of my life.
All eyes can see my
story, but not
all ask my name.
All names look like me
when
they sit in a chair...
except when
lives walk away from
pieces of existence
spilled on poker
tables.

-- Erin Kelly

These are words that have come from Erin Kelly's mind, through her fingertips, and onto paper. But they are words that will never be heard in her voice. Kelly has cerebral palsy and has difficulty with her speech. She also is unable to walk.

But none of these factors stopped her from graduating from Penn State Altoona in December 2009 with a bachelor's degree in Letters, Arts, and Sciences. It also hasn't stopped her from living an incredibly full and busy life.

Kelly, 24, was born in Seoul, Korea, likely on the streets, and abandoned at a police station with a note allowing her to be placed for adoption. She was born with CP, a condition that refers to a number of neurological disorders that permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination. The symptoms of cerebral palsy differ in type and severity from person to person. While some may be confined to a wheelchair, others may experience only slight clumsiness. While one child may have seizures and severe mental retardation, another may have mild learning disabilities or language delay. In Kelly's case, although she cannot walk and speaks only minimally, she has no problem learning, reading, and typing. "CP is permanent and you have to find ways to adapt and be willing to adapt — or you'll drive yourself crazy," states Kelly, via e-mail. "It can kill you emotionally, but I think if you try to find a balance of peace with yourself and the condition, you're winning half the battle."

When she was 10 months old, Kelly's adoptive parents, Tim and Debbie Kelly, picked her up at JFK airport in New York and brought her home to Altoona. "Being adopted doesn't bother me. It's something that not everybody gets to experience and that's why it's so special." Kelly's two brothers, TJ and Cody, also are adopted. "My parents have always made it a point to say that we are all unique because we were chosen by them."

With advances in technology, Kelly has gone from a manual wheelchair in early elementary school to a motorized one before entering junior high. She also has advanced from a communication board with 144 keys to represent the alphabet and four or five other things, to a laptop loaded with programs to make typing and communication easier. And she uses a desktop computer and cell phone.

Her transition to college was fairly smooth and one for which she was prepared. "It wasn't much of a change from elementary or high school because I've always known I have to work harder than the average person. It's a mentality that's been instilled in me since I was a kid, not because my parents wanted me to impress everyone I came across, but because I had everything to prove." The only difference from junior high and high school to college was that Kelly didn't have an aide follow her from class to class and assist her. It was a major change, but a welcomed one because it helped her grow as a person.

Several factors led to Kelly's decision to attend Penn State Altoona. It was very close to her house, thereby eliminating any transportation issues. And, importantly, she felt the college was very accepting of diversity in all forms.

Kelly emphasizes that the same applies to the faculty. "In addition to the college's positive approach to education, I think that is what made me feel at home."

To give her a bigger voice, Kelly found an outlet in writing. "I've always had a voice. It may not be as loud as others, but it's there. It's just a matter of who will actually stop and listen to it — and most importantly, understand me, not just humor me."

She began writing poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction around the age of 6 or 7. In junior and senior high, she wrote for her school newspaper and started writing for Penn State Altoona's student newspaper, The Altoona Collegiate Review, in 2005. In 2009, Kelly was hired as a freelance columnist for the local daily newspaper, The Altoona Mirror. Her column, "The View From Here," runs the first Thursday of every month and gives the community a snapshot of her life and the challenges she faces on a daily basis. "Part of the reason I wanted to do this was to take that feeling of being 'locked' inside myself and turn it into something positive and worthwhile. The goal is to present my stories in a funny, lighthearted manner that educates and entertains the public."

Kelly credits several of the English faculty for giving the art of writing a soul and a heartbeat and helping her not only find her wings, but to use them as well. They taught her that words are more than just a presentation on paper, and were instrumental in helping create her senior capstone project, which combined her original writings with the movement and spectacle of theatre.

The concept came about while Kelly was tossing around ideas with her advisor. How could she present her poetry when communication itself would be an issue? Two other instructors came on board to help flesh out the project, which turned into a 45-minute play. Six Penn State Altoona students agreed to read several of Kelly's pieces aloud while creating a physical representation of her life. Kelly sat in the center of the stage, acting as the motor of a merry-go-round. Each of the student-actors tied a colored ribbon to her wheelchair and shuffled around it while they read, tangling her within the ribbons to represent Kelly's daily life. At the end of the program, the students cut handfuls of ribbon away from the wheelchair to symbolize her thoughts being set free. "I think because the set-up was so simple, the show was a lot more profound and really resonated with the audience," writes Kelly. The audience for the program was double what was anticipated, and Kelly received an "A" for the project.

Kelly considers herself blessed to be able to do all that she does and takes in stride the doubts others may sometimes have about her abilities. When there are people who don't bother to view her as a person with real thoughts, feelings, and responsibilities, she says she quietly tries to show them the things she can do and the talents she possesses. She believes it is extremely important to be understood, heard, and treated with respect.

"Yes, I do get frustrated," Kelly states. "While my sources of frustration aren't the same as those of someone else, I have to remember that, because of my challenges, I am able to have experiences that are unique to me. I know there are certain things I'll always need help with, but this is the one and only thing I ask: the things I can do on my own, please let me do on my own."

Kelly already has written a novel and is working to get a book of poetry published. She also is looking into editing material for other writers. She loves writing her column for the Mirror and hopes to have the opportunity to write for it more often.

"My family has never told me I couldn't do something or be something. We've always just experimented until we found another way to accomplish whatever task is at hand. The words 'I can't' were not permitted in our house. Rather, 'I'll try.'"