Erin Kelly’s cerebral palsy built a wall that she believed no one could break through. These five stories come from five of her closest friends who made the choice to break through that wall and redefine friendship.
The age-old question of “Why?” can come in many forms.
Why is the sky blue?
Why does the sun rise?
For me, this question often presents itself as a whisper or a confused, almost fearful look that seeps into my soul and makes me feel like I have to take on the world in a knockdown, drag-out fight to prove myself. It’s perhaps the #1 question associated with my cerebral palsy—the proverbial hammer that builds the wall I never intended to build.
I’ve answered this question and torn down this wall so many times that I forget what it’s like not to. Much of my childhood and teen years were spent watching “friends” walk in and out of my life, friends I thought truly looked passed the shadow of my wheelchair and didn’t ask or expect me to prove my abilities or worth to them.
There were many times when I wished this scene would just fade to black but that’s where the true heroes of this story come in—those who not only chose to break that wall down but who chose to simultaneously build some of the strongest bridges of friendship ever assembled:
“I met Erin during those awkward high school years when you struggle to find yourself, let alone try to figure other people out. I have to admit, I was one of “those people” who stares but never says anything. That’s when she “wheeled” into my life. I found it [to be] more of a struggle with my own apprehensions, the fear of the unknown. I wanted to talk to her, but what If I didn’t understand what she was saying? Would I feel awkward? Would she get frustrated with me? I needed to know her story and what was she all about. I wondered if I could I help her out, why she was so small and petite, and how she even gets through the day. Well, thirteen years ago, I said, ‘Screw it, let’s do this!’ and through tears, fears, grieving, boys, midterms, and an abundance of laughs, I thought she needed me, but in reality, I was the one who needed her.” –Rachel Wachter
“One of my first recollections of Erin was at my high school graduation. I remember sitting in my seat, waiting for a student I graduated with to get up out of her wheelchair to try and walk to get her diploma. They were small, diminutive steps, but she was making her way up to the podium. I thought to myself, ‘Wow! This must be a big accomplishment for this girl.’ I can’t remember if my thought was in reference to her walking or her accomplishment in graduating high school. I did not know this girl, and never remember seeing her in the hallways of my school. I thought she may have even been homeschooled. That was the extent of my thought process at the time.
The next time I met her was during my sophomore or junior year of college at Penn State Altoona. I ran into her and her older brother on campus. I had a polite conversation with him; I knew him from a Christian organization I had been attending [on campus]. I said hello to her, I spoke to her, but without the expectation of a response. My next somewhat meaningful conversation with Erin was back on campus. I think she was waiting to go to class, which up until then I did not even realize she was a student.
She was by herself, and I wanted to say hello because I didn’t want to be rude. I was also afraid that if I ignored her she would get the impression that I thought I was better than her in some way. It was not until Erin’s senior year of college that I remember being wowed by her intelligence. I attended her senior project which I can’t remember if I was invited to, or just happened to stumble across. I listened to her poems and the visual displays that accompanied each one. They were deep and meaningful. Some were too deep for me to grasp or comprehend. I approached her afterward and congratulated her on her project and told her how impressed I was with her work. It was at this point that I had formed a different impression of Erin. I guess you could say this was a turning point. I started to see her more for her strengths instead of her weaknesses. I’ve learned over time that she loves The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Steve Carell, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
We try and go out to see a movie about once a month, and I’m always learning new things from her. The most important thing that Erin has taught me over the years is to look at people and acknowledge the things that they can do rather than the things they can’t do.” –Justin Barr
“I became friends with Erin because my now husband, Justin, was friends with her. When I officially moved to Altoona after college and no longer had so many obligations, I attended my first get-together with her and Justin. I was a bit nervous, as I always am when I meet someone new. I tend to be shy and self-conscious at first. It was pretty apparent that they had an easy-going dynamic and solid friendship, which only proved to make me more nervous. That nervousness quickly faded though. I’m not sure how to describe the ways my friendship with Erin have progressed, but I know it has, at least on my end. Before, I looked at her as Justin’s friend, now I am grateful to count her among my own. Like the few other close friends I’ve made along the years, as time passes, I find it easier and easier to talk to her. I find myself being just that, myself. When I think back on the last two years or so, I try to consider how her cerebral palsy has affected my building a friendship with her.
At first, I felt unsure if I should help her in certain situations. It didn’t take long for me to see that she was okay with some assistance or guidance (as Justin tends to like to grab onto the handles and crack jokes (maybe that’s where his comedic power comes from), but she sure didn’t need it, as it’s very easy to make her laugh. I think I felt a little awkward at first, simply because I didn’t want to say or do the wrong thing. I didn’t want to somehow offend her with my words or actions, I guess I was looking at her as fragile.
However, something changed after the first couple get-togethers. I decided to dive right into my friendship with her and chose to look at her as Erin, someone I wanted to get to know, not really seeing or focusing on much else than that. Doing this and having her let me in and become her friend has shown me to look at things through nonjudgmental eyes, to take and learn about things as they come, rather than try to have some premeditated idea or judgment of what I should think or how I should act. I let new people or things teach me, instead of telling people or things how they are, possibly without complete knowledge.
I don’t think of Erin and think “wheelchair” or “cerebral palsy.” Instead, I think of her and think “fellow lover of Steve Carell,” or “I have to remember to tell Erin that story when I see her” or “I can’t wait to see where her talent takes her” or “I’m lucky to have a kind, caring friend like Erin” or “I wonder if Erin will want to see that movie” or “I can’t wait for Erin’s next article to come out” or “Erin, she has a great smile, really infectious.” I could go on and on so I’ll stop. Things have progressed as any good friendship I’ve made before and I can only hope as time moves forward it will grow even stronger. She has a unique perspective and as cliché as it might very well be, I find her to be an incredibly strong person with a fiery spirit. I think it’s important to learn, to grow, to challenge ourselves and our perspectives. Erin inspires me to do that.” –Kelly Barr
“My friendship with Erin was built in the about one-quarter mile trip we made from the Hawthorn Building to the parking lot every Monday and Wednesday after our creative writing class as undergrads.
In all honesty, I only know of one ‘thing’ that can take credit for taking our relationship passed the ‘casual acknowledgement phase’—beyond an ‘acquaintance’—and into a caring and authentic friendship. A relationship of worth. It wasn’t Erin’s cerebral palsy, and it certainly was not my overwhelming sense of humanity and kindness. Though I wish it were.
After our first day of class I was given the opportunity by our professor to “accompany” Erin down to her ride home. I did just that, I ‘accompanied’ Erin to her ride. The next day, I got an e-mail from Erin asking if I would be willing to walk with her, ride the elevator downstairs, and help with the doors after class. I remember being so touched by her bravery and the invitation to not just ‘accompany’ her to the door, but to join with her in a walk after class. Over the next few weeks Erin and I actually engaged in getting to know each other, in participating in each other’s day.
I believe that the heart or soul has the ability to express/project energy into the world in order to actually cause affective change. It is not just gushy sentiment, but something that, when experienced, is powerful. It is love. Erin’s heartbeats are full of love, care, compassion. You cannot help but to be affected by Erin, affected by her courage and love. I don’t know about Katy Perry, but Erin is a lion.” –Cory Jones
“At first, I had the sensation I was friends with a teacup…petite, delicate…the person who really helped my mind move from teacup to person was my now husband, Tarun, who treated Erin more like a football and tomboy. Erin much prefers to be treated like a football.
Tarun’s rough-housing brought giggles of delight to the often reserved Erin. He treats her like a little sister—messing up her hair, throwing food, and I can’t forget their eating contests. He even teased her, ‘What, Erin? You think I don’t see you scheming? Yeah, I know you!’ After such teasing, he’d inevitably mess with her wheelchair—spinning her in circles, crashing her into walls. While this might annoy any other sister, Erin reveled in it. I imagine she loved being treated like a person, up for a go, up for a tease, up for intense food consumption…but by God, up for something more than polite but damn boring conversation about “the trials of overcoming this and overcoming that.” I think she enjoyed just being a friend, not a tribute to humanities resilience.” –Erica Chawla
From Erin about Tarun:
When Tarun literally walked into my life almost eight years ago, I didn’t know he was a son or a brother—nor did I know he was from India. We were both students at Penn State Altoona at the time, and I thought he was just a stranger walking down a hallway and showing an act of kindness by saying, “Hey, aren’t you Erin—the girl who writes for the campus newspaper?” as he not only slowly took the headphones I’d been wearing off my ears, but came right up to me and hugged me while I was waiting to go to class one day.
That moment told me that he didn’t “see” my wheelchair, and still doesn’t. He didn’t let it dictate whether or not I was worthy of his time or friendship. He made a habit of walking down that same hallway every day, and in doing so, I gained a best friend who I’m now proud to call a brother. It was then that I realized that he accomplished something in five minutes that takes the rest of the world seemingly an eternity to accomplish—approach me and treat me like a normal human being. His accent, the color of his skin…none of that matters to me. Just like my cerebral palsy doesn’t matter to him. His wife Erica has even become the sister I’ve never had.
These people were strangers, strangers who took a risk by slowly picking away at—and eventually tearing down—the wall my disability built until they found the real “me” inside. They’re leaders in every sense of the word—and with the kind of compassion, love, and friendship they’ve shown me, I truly believe they have the power to lead the world in a positive direction.
I love you guys! You’ve given me the best Christmas gift I could ever want or ask for, simply by being a part of my life, as well as this story.
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