Melissa in the Middle of Everything: The Melissa Mitchell Story

Photo of Melissa
Photo of Melissa
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.

On her 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 stunned nation. 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.

“AmeriCorps has shown me that being an American is about connecting and participation, not griping, complaining and apathy. During my two years in AmeriCorps I have met people with huge hearts, minds and dreams. I came back to the U.S. with nothing — no plan of my own, and isolated. The last two years have shown me that life is fluid and just because your original plan falls through doesn’t mean you have failed. I learned this first from a little boy who couldn’t read or write his name. I continued to embrace every day as I helped people learn to help themselves before disaster strikes. I now look forward with confidence to the future knowing that if I do what I know is right and help where I can, I will have what I need — nothing less.”

Mitchell 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 down. 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. Occasionally, her determination would leave her hanging in the most unlikely places.

“I’ve always been an adventurous person and an adventurous kid. If the other kids were doing something, I wanted to do it, too. When I was in first or second grade and out for recess the other kids were on the monkey bars. So, I climbed up there too and was having a good time, but then I realized I couldn’t get down. The bell rang and all the other kids when back inside. There I was hanging out on the monkey bars, all by myself. Looked like someone would have noticed that the only kid in the school in a wheelchair was missing. After about 10 minutes someone must have said, ‘Where’s Melissa?’ ” Mitchell said.

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 goals and
confront any force that would dare attempt to rob her of 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 own. There were, of course, steep stairs, curbs and bumps that were less than wheelchair-friendly. Undaunted, Mitchell 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. Mitchell retreated to the sanctuary of her home. The love of family and friends helped heal the brutality of the bullies rather quickly, but the scars remain in her mind, even today. Mitchell reminds us that things are much different for kids like her. The power of social media has in some ways destroyed the walls of our own personal sanctuary. There is virtually no safe place for kids who are different to hide from the torment of bullies. With just a few keystrokes and the click of a mouse, technology allows the senseless pain to invade your home.

“I thank my lucky stars that I was in school before social media. When I went home, the bullies couldn’t get to me. They couldn’t chase me down on the Internet. No evil Facebook posting. I had time to recover and figure out what to do about it. I look at kids I work with and mentor today and know they don’t get a break from this sort of stuff. The torment can be 24/7. It can be just awful,” Mitchell said.  Her experience with bullies may have been foreshadowing an opportunity to help kids who were different in the years to come.  Mitchell 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
News. Her 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. Mitchell vividly remembers as graduation day crept closer, fears of the real world crept closer, too.

It was a time when newspapers all across the country were in a nosedive. Most newspapers were firing, not hiring. Regardless, job interviews would inevitably be the next step in the pursuit of a career in journalism. Swirling in Mitchell’s head was questions job interviewers might ask regarding her physical ability to cover a news story in the middle of the night. Would they say to themselves, “Could the kid in the wheelchair really do the job by herself?”

Yes, the prospects for a job in journalism seemed bleak for a variety of reasons, but there was a portion of Mitchell’s resume that always amazed the interviewers – her travel. 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 grandmother. Mitchell’s mom carefully marked all of her belongings with green ribbon for easy identification once she reached her destination. The flight to Prescott was the beginning of Mitchell’s lifelong love of travel. With each subsequent journey, the miles and complexity of her journeys grew. The real travel eye-popper was her travel abroad. 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 and her 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
imagined came her way. 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. She 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 tutor, Mitchell touched the lives of many young children with various disabilities. Her 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. Yes, Mitchell is truly in the middle of everything, but one thing that brings her exceptional joy is her dogs.

Several years ago Mitchell began the process of learning to train dogs to serve people like herself. Her decision to learn to train dogs was generated from her own failed attempt to acquire a service dog some years prior. Even with the best of intentions, it is impossible for a reputable service dog training program to meet the consumer demand. The training is intense and lengthy.

“Service dogs are living creatures that cannot be manufactured or copied. They are incredibly unique. Only 50 percent of the dogs that begin training complete training. It takes two years to fully raise and train a service dog. 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 needs. So, of course, Mitchell began her 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,
a delightful little puppy named Bastien became Mitchell’s constant companion. Both soon found out patience and consistency were virtues that would guide them every day they trained.

“I am not by nature a patient person, probably because as someone with a disability I have always been waiting for something. Waiting for someone to pick me up. Waiting for appointments. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. It drives me crazy, but with my dog I learned a lot about patience,” Mitchell said.

She 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. Mitchell 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 wisdom. She is wise beyond her years. Credit some of it to her mother who refused to pull-any-punches when it came to teaching her daughter the world would judge her and her wheelchair by a different set of rules. Credit is also due to Mitchell for revering the words of her mother and taking them to heart as so few children do.

The lion’s share of Mitchell’s wisdom comes from her acute understanding that life is fluid and constantly changing. Be ready for it. In Mitchell’s world apathy is never welcomed, but action is rewarded. Her life will always be an adventure absent of griping or complaining, but full of doing for others. Mitchell is proof positive we can all live a wonderful life in or out of a wheelchair. All you have to do is remember “The Monkey Bar Rule.”

Melissa may be reached at melissa_n_mitchell@yahoo.com.


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