The Invisible Courage of the Choir Girl From Waverly

Photo of Jennifer
Photo of Jennifer
There are many who have battled the invisible demons giving depression its quiet, yet formidable power. For reasons that are obvious and those that are not, depression can creep into one’s life and bewilder the mind, confuse the body and imprison the spirit. More than 15 million Americans suffer in silence believing they can conquer their illness alone, but few do. Their suffering is routinely magnified by the social stigma attached to those who publicly profess their depression.

Many times our “toughen-up” culture turns its back on anyone who would dare suggest they might be even a bit depressed. Unless one's pain comes in the form of a black eye, bloody nose or broken arm, the tendency is to offer little sympathy and quickly toss out a flippant quip such as, “Life is tough; get over it.” Those types of comments incite some to say depression itself is less painful than deflecting the heartless sling and arrows of stupidity.

True courage is witnessed when those battling depression finally surrender and seek help in spite of their many assorted fears. Courageous, too, are those who, while, in the midst of waging war against their own depression, are told they may never walk again, yet somehow see their struggle will ultimately leave them better equipped to help others.

Jennifer Wolff grew-up in Waverly, Iowa, a town with a population of 9,359. It is located in the northeastern corner of the state and is home to Wartburg College, a four-year liberal arts school, which opened its doors in 1852. Wolff is a proud alumna. There, she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and like most young college students enjoyed the fun and adventure of life, both on and off campus.

As a member of Wartburg’s choir, she traveled to Europe and sang in many storied locations, such as the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. They also performed at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, Germany. Not only is the castle the namesake of their college, but also Eisenach is the sister city of Waverly, Iowa.

While in Germany, Wolff and the choir also toured the infamous Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, where more than three million Jews died from massive gas chambers or starvation. Like so many others who visit Auschwitz, this grim reminder of the cruelty and pure evil that continue to plague our world profoundly affected Wolff and her classmates. “Words cannot describe the feeling and emotions that come over you when you walk through Auschwitz. Everyone spoke softly. It is truly sacred ground. Our next concert was close-by and very, very memorable,” Wolff said.

By the age of 20, Wolff had toured and performed in more than six European countries in just more than one month. At each stop, she and the other choir members would spend the night with host families and absorb as much of the local culture as possible. Along the way, Wolff made new friends and has remained in close contact with many of them even today, especially their bus drivers from Luxembourg.

“The bus drivers were phenomenal, as well as a group of young people who were our tour guides. We stayed several days in Luxembourg, and while there, they opened up a local winery and hosted a party for all of us. Four years later, my brother, Jon, traveled to Europe and toured with the Wartburg choir. He met and became friends with many of the same people I met several years earlier,” Wolff said.

A year later Wolff set out on another adventure, thanks to a Wartburg archeology class. She spent the month of May in Israel, Egypt and Jordan. While she was there, she walked the streets of Old Jerusalem soaking in as much of its magic, mystery and multicultural environment as possible. She also spent two weeks working at an archeological dig site in the ancient city of Bethsaida near the Sea of Galilee. Bethlehem was another destination that stirred her spirit in many unimaginable ways.

“For me it was so meaningful to simply walk in places that are so holy. Where we stayed in Old Jerusalem, we could stand on the roof and look out over the entire city,” Wolff said. “You could feel its power primarily because it is the place where the three major religions of the world converge and collide. This trip truly changed my life.”

While Wolff was in the Middle East, one of many conflicts between the Israelis and Palestinians occurred. After the turmoil subsided, Wolff and others visited a local YMCA gymnasium that was being used as a makeshift hospital and jail. It was filled with injured Palestinians who were either receiving medical attention or being held by the Israeli authorities. Wolff had the opportunity to speak with several Palestinians and found them to be warm, friendly people. She discovered most of them longed for a lasting peace and an end to the constant fighting. Wolff also confirmed her belief that there are always two
sides to every story.

“The entire trip made me much more aware of the pain and suffering that goes on in our world. We in America have a limited awareness of the misery and hardship good people endure every day,” Wolff said.

After earning her bachelor’s degree from Wartburg, Wolff wasn’t sure what she to do with her life. Consequently, she bounced through a series of odd jobs from working in retail to being a limousine chauffeur. During this time, in the back of her mind, she felt a desire to pursue a career that would ultimately equip her to help people. With a little loving guidance from her parents, who are lifelong educators, Wolff decided to pursue a career in occupational therapy. Soon, she was on her way to the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn. Everything seemed to be going well, but in reality it was not. Her grades began to slip. Getting out of bed in the morning and attending class became increasingly difficult. She became withdrawn and distant. Her family and friends knew something was wrong, but were not sure what to do or how to help.

“About twice a year, I’d have episodes with depression. I thought I could manage it on my own, but it got to the point where I’d dig myself into a hole I just couldn’t get out of. The people at St. Catherine were wonderful and supportive. They said stop, go home and get well. We’ll be waiting for you to return,” Wolff said.

As with most people suffering from depression Wolff ’s first step toward recovery was to openly acknowledge her illness. She was well aware of the social stigma associated with depression, but her fear of not seeking help out-weighed the thought of any hurtful gossip or ridicule that might come her way. Fortunately, she heeded the advice of her friends at St. Catherine’s and, at age 29, moved back home with her mom and dad and got professional help. Her family and friends rallied around her offering their love, encouragement and prayers — all of which are often more important and as powerful as any of today’s medications.

“The invisible disabilities, like depression, still seem to be much harder for our culture to deal with than those that are visible,” Wolff said.

No one could have foreseen the odd twist-of-fate waiting for Wolff. It seemed unimaginable she would soon be facing a visible disability that would change her life yet again. As she gradually began to win her battle over depression, another war was brewing within her body. A tumor was attacking her spinal cord. Her doctors and family were concerned the diagnosis might cause her to slip back into depression, but she did not. From somewhere she found strength, an inner peace that would serve her well throughout her newest trial. The need for the tumor to be surgically removed was certain, but the consequences were not. Unfortunately, after the surgery Wolff was left with limited use of her legs.

Rehabilitation did help her regain the ability to walk short distances with the aid of a walker or crutches. Now, seemingly on the mend, she returned to St. Catherine’s and completed her master’s degree in occupational therapy. With her depression hopefully behind her, a new career in front of her and even with the challenge of limited mobility Wolff was feeling good about herself. Regrettably, within six months of starting her new career as an occupational therapist, the tumor returned, prompting a second surgery along with radiation.

The additional trauma to her spine destroyed the little mobility she had regained after the first surgery. She was now officially a paraplegic. Since June 2006, Wolff has lived and worked from her wheelchair. As she says, being a “roller” has not stopped her from living her life to the fullest.

There is some speculation that pressure of the tumor on her spinal cord may have triggered her depression. Chances are no one will ever know for sure. What is evident is that since the complete eradication of Wolff’s tumor, her depression has lost its hold on her life.

Today, she is not only a respected occupational therapist, but also a passionate, effective advocate for those with disabilities of all kinds. She plays a leading role in the Waverly Healthcare Center Parkinson’s Care Team and regularly provides much needed information to stroke and Parkinson’s caregivers. She spearheaded a drive to increase membership in Iowa’s Occupational Therapy Association and served on a task group involved in specialization for OTs who works with complex rehab technology. She also has become an advocate by attending the Continuing Education and Legislative Advocacy conference the last two years, joining with Users First and traveling to Abilities Expos. In addition to her other activities, she also works with a local group, People for Quality Care, to help educate people on competitive bidding. Last, but not least, Wolff was awarded the title of Ms. Wheelchair Iowa for 2011 and travels the state speaking to a variety of groups. In August, she will travel to Michigan to compete for Ms. Wheelchair America.

This year Wolff will celebrate her 40th birthday. In that short time she has faced, fought and won more battles than many people twice her age. By her own admission, depression may have been the most difficult. “I’d much rather live life in a wheelchair than silently suffer alone with depression,” Wolff said.

Her statement is undoubtedly very bold. Some may disagree with her conclusion, but no one can argue her outcome. The Wolff who loved to sing, travel and experience life to the fullest has returned home. Now, a bit wiser and a lot tougher, she is able to deflect the slings and arrows of life that fly her way with a simple flick-of-the-wrist and a captivating smile. The invisible demons have undoubtedly lost their power.

Jennifer may be reached at

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