Gabryelle Conklin was born first of triplets at only 25 weeks gestation. She weighed one pound, 12 ounces. She was very healthy at birth, receiving better scores than either of her sisters, though they were all immediately intubated and placed on life support.
Gabryelle remained on life support for nearly two months. At three months old and weighing just over four-and-a-half pounds, she came home.
As the girls began to progress, Gabryelle's parents began to notice something was "different" about her. When Gabryelle was nine months old, her pediatrician referred them to a neurologist.
"Within three minutes of walking into the neurologist's office, Gabryelle was diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy," her mother, Regina Conklin, recalled. For the next couple of years, hours and hours every week were spent in physical therapy, occupational therapy and developmental clinics.
Her parents consider themselves to be very lucky with Gabryelle's condition.
"Having a child with cerebral palsy has allowed us to meet lots of other parents with children with cerebral palsy. To say that the differences among these children are infinite is an understatement," Regina Conklin said.
Gabryelle is a quadriplegic; however, her vocal skills are normal as well as her mental abilities. She was even on her high school's cheerleading squad. Unfortunately, most of Gabryelle's issues are physical. She had a spinal dorsal rhizotomy when she was six years old in an effort to reduce some of the spasticity in her legs which may have given her a chance to walk. Not only was this unsuccessful, it also contributed to the severity of her scoliosis over the next several years.
"We began watching the curvature of her spine, but wanted to let her grow as much as possible before we attempted to correct it and were able to wait until she was 14 years old to have a full spinal fusion. The pain that remains today that we just help to alleviate with medication is constant hip pain due to dislocation and degeneration of the hip joints."
When she was three years old, she was enrolled in a special education preschool program with various therapies within the regular school system. Gabryelle made huge improvements over the next few years throughout school, but the summers presented another challenge. Everything gained during the school year would begin to diminish without daily interaction with teachers, therapists and peers.
Enter Empower Me Day Camp.
"I get chills now thinking back to the day we first heard about this camp. After years of struggling with trying to find childcare services for a child with disabilities, we could not believe that there was a place out there specifically focused on meeting the needs of OUR child," Regina Conklin said.
Gabryelle began going to Empower Me Day Camp when she was six years old. She is now 22 years old and has only missed camp one summer due to having the spinal fusion surgery to correct the scoliosis.
"The parents of Empower Me children are so fortunate to have a place to send their children where THEY are the main focus. Gabryelle's life has improved so much. She has the largest heart of any human I have ever had the pleasure to know."
Now that she is older, she acts as a mentor to the smaller children at camp and wants to be a motivational speaker someday.
Regina Conklin said, "She asked me a few months ago if there was one thing I could change about her what would it be. I said I would make her be able to walk and not be handicapped, of course." Gabryelle replied, "You know, I don't think I would change that about myself because it makes me who I am, and I would not have been able to help all those kids at camp if I weren't handicapped."
Empower Me Day Camp Executive Director Michelle Hill stated, "Gabryelle has been a very visible part of Empower Me Day Camp over the past 17 years. She is truly an inspiration to everyone at our camp and everyone she meets. She is always offering a word of kindness to our staff and is a true cheerleader to all of the kids with disabilities who are part of what she calls her 'EMDC Family.' She has been officially accompanying staff to various speaking engagements and doing a terrific job spreading the word about what this organization means to her and her family. Despite her physical limitations, she has a wonderful view of life. We all should stop and take note."
Gabryelle believes "life is a journey ... never give up!" and "stay positive in this lifetime and then you will be rewarded!" She is definitely a role model for us all.
Gabryelle will perform with the Bert Coble Singers Community Choir on Dec. 17 and 18 at Baird Chapel on the Cumberland University campus. Choir Director Jennifer Perry said, "We felt like we wanted to focus our efforts to raise funds for local organizations where we live and work. Empower Me rose to the top. As I have gotten to know more about the organization, I am so excited to be able to partner with them and have Gabryelle be a part of the show as a soloist."
Hill noted, "We are grateful for Jennifer reaching out to us and feel very blessed to be a part of their special celebration. Money donated to Empower Me from this event will help Gabryelle have a job some day with our organization as she continues to empower everyone she meets."
If you would like more information about the Bert Coble Singers Community Choir, visit www.BertCobleSingers.com. For information on how you can help Empower Me's efforts to build a new facility for individuals with disabilities, visit www.EmpowerMeCenter.com.