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Lebanon woman empowers, inspires

Sara McManamy-Johnson sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 10:06 PM

Lebanon’s Gabryelle Conklin will take the national spotlight Tuesday.

ESPN will feature a segment on Gabryelle, a former cheerleader at Wilson Central High School, on Tuesday at 6 p.m.

Gabryelle has cerebral palsy.

Gabryelle's parents knew there was something ‘different’ about her by the time she was 9 months old.

Although Gabryelle, firstborn of triplets, and her sisters were born prematurely, Gabryelle seemed healthy at birth. But as she and her sisters began to progress, her parents noticed Gabryelle progressed differently.

When she was 9 months old, her pediatrician referred her to a neurologist.

“Within three minutes of walking into the neurologist’s office, Gabryelle was diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy,” said her mother, Regina Conklin.

For the next couple years, Gabryelle spent several hours each week in physical therapy, occupational therapy and developmental clinics.

When she was 3 years old, her parents enrolled her in a special education preschool program with various types of therapies. She made drastic improvements over the next few years, but many of her gains during the school year dwindled during the summer without daily interaction with teachers, therapists and peers.

“I get chills now thinking back to the day we first heard about [Empower Me Day Camp],” said Regina Conklin. “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.”

Gabryelle began going to Empower Me Day Camp when she was 6 years old. She is now 20 years old and has missed just one summer of camp.

Although Gabryelle is a quadriplegic, her vocal skills and mental abilities are both normal, and she has not let her physical disabilities hold her back.

She made headlines in 2010 as one of two wheelchair-bound cheerleaders for Wilson Central, and she’s become a vocal advocate for Empower Me Day Camp.

“[Gabryelle] has been such a visible part of us since the beginning and has blossomed into such a beautiful woman,” said Michelle Hill, executive director for Empower Me Day Camp.

For almost 10 years, Gabryelle has joined in on the camp’s community events to tell people her story and what the camp has done for her.

Hill said Gabryelle has also become a mentor for the younger children at camp, and she wants to eventually become a motivational speaker.

“Gabryelle asked me a few months ago if there was one thing I could change about her, what would it be,” said Regina. “I said I would make her be able to walk and not be handicapped, of course. Gabryelle said, ‘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.’”

Hill said that view is part of what makes Gabryelle such an inspiration.

“Despite her limitations, she has a wonderful view of life. We should all stop and take note,” said Hill.

To learn more about Empower Me Day Camp or to donate money, visit empowermedaycamp.com. 

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