Michaela (Chaeli) Mycroft became the first female quadriplegic to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in September. But this is only one of many interesting facts I learned when I met the 21-year-old South African and her mother Zelda on campus recently.
Chaeli and Zelda were at Quinnipiac University at the invitation of David T. Ives, executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute, to speak about Chaeli’s experiences with cerebral palsy and her work as an ability activist.
Chaeli gave her presentation three times before the day was over, the second time without the aid of her slideshow. At the end of each talk, students were given time to meet Chaeli, who is a student herself at the University of Cape Town. These informal interactions were among her favorite parts of the day.
Chaeli spoke about her own desire for mobility and independence as a youngster. Wheelchairs were expensive and fundraising for a motorized wheelchair would wind up being the start of The Chaeli Campaign, a non-profit organization she co-founded as a 10-year-old, along with her older sister Erin and their three best friends, Tarryn, Justine and Chelsea Terry.
In 2004, the five girls came up with an idea to raise money. They would sell cards featuring Erin and Chaeli’s artwork and Sunshine Pots, miniature pot plant kits that included seed and soil. Chaeli got permission from her school to take orders from students and their families, and the girls began to sell. Within seven weeks, the girls had the money for Chaeli’s wheelchair, but orders were still coming in.
Zelda suggested the two families could start a non-profit organization to help other children with disabilities, if the girls wanted to keep being involved. The organization, proud to have been founded by kids, is now in its eleventh year.
The Chaeli Campaign helps about 3,000 South African children a year to receive assistive devices and therapies. It also operates a number of programs designed to create inclusive environments for children with disabilities. A basic tenet of the organization is this:
Physical/intellectual impairment is self-evident and can be dealt with. Disability is created by the way in which society responds to the impairment.
Often, Chaeli said, people with disabilities are seen as a burden within their community, taking up time, energy and space.
“Disability is inconvenient for them to deal with,” Chaeli acknowledged. But it’s important to remember that it is an inconvenience for the disabled person as well.
“Disabled people are still people who have the same needs and the same rights as everyone else,” Chaeli pointed out. “You can’t just give people a wheelchair and think, ‘Cool, my job is done,’”
This is why inclusive environments are so important. They reinforce the message that being different is okay and help to change people’s perceptions about disability and what ability means.
As Chaeli talks about her life, she uses humor to engage her audience. It makes her incredibly relatable, even as she challenges what people might believe are the limitations of a disabled person. Take for example her story about sandboarding.
When she went, no one was sure what would be the best way for Chaeli to ride down the sandy hill. The first option had Chaeli sitting at the front of the board with her ride partner behind.
“It was a bad plan,” Chaeli laughed. “Don’t put a disabled person with balance issues on the front of a sandboard.”
Chaeli had a great time and is thankful to her parents for the bravery they showed in letting her do it, despite the possibility she might get hurt. Like many things in her life, it was tough sometimes, but it helped that her parents always focused on the positives, which fostered her can-do attitude. It’s like Zelda said to me later:
You can’t learn inclusion, you have to live it.
Living a life of inclusion has led Chaeli to many interesting adventures. She gave a few examples, like wheelchair dancing. Chaeli started at the age of 11 and competes with current partner, Damian Michaels.
Or cycling. Her friend, Grant Kruger, introduced her to the idea and she joked about her initial response. “My legs don’t even move; you’re ridiculous,” Chaeli says she told him. “Eventually I was convinced by his face. It was nice.” The pair competed in the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour.
Building on these experiences led to the the idea for something grander in scale, or as Chaeli put it, “a little more epic” – climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
The climb was four years in the planning, and Chaeli needed a custom built wheelchair, and an incredible team to make it happen.
Chaeli celebrated her birthday on day two of the climb. “They made me a cake on a mountain,” she said. “It was phenomenal.”
But on day three she realized what she’d really gotten into. There were many challenges, not least of which was the cold. By day five, she was starting to get frostbite in her feet.
“It’s not like I need my feet, but I like having them,” she laughed.
The group learned many lessons about planning, being creative in the face of problems, bravery and admitting weaknesses. In short, it was an amazing experience.
The whirlwind schedule Chaeli and Zelda have planned for the next couple weeks sounds like it will be pretty amazing as well. They arrived in the U.S. the day before the talks at Quinnipiac, and they were flying out the next day to visit Earth University in Costa Rica. After that, they are scheduled to take part in workshops at the International Children’s Peace Prize ceremonies in the Netherlands before heading to the 15th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Barcelona.
Chaeli herself won the 2011 International Children’s Peace Prize, and she was also awarded the first ever Peace Summit Medal for Social Activism at the 2012 World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. She has met famous people from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to Bill Clinton to Malala Yousafzai, who won the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2013.
But these are not what she is most proud of achieving.
“It’s more the small things,” Chaeli said. She recalls a young boy in a South African township whose bedridden parents had not left their home for seven years. The Chaeli Campaign was able to get wheelchairs for them.
To be able to give something that is a pretty small thing in the big picture … for them it was everything.
The Chaeli Campaign is about changing lives by focusing on mobilizing the minds and bodies of children with disabilities. It is also about hope. Following Chaeli’s lecture, Zelda spoke about some of the programs of The Chaeli Campaign that focus directly on nurturing hope and opportunity.
One is the Pay-It-Forward Ambassadors Program. The program was started in 2009 in order to ensure that The Chaeli Campaign, which was started by kids to address the needs of kids, would be able to maintain the voice of youth leaders as its original founders continued to age.
Children aged between 9 and 14 are invited to invest a year of their time to promote The Chaeli Campaign while learning about social entrepreneurship and how to run their own projects – including fundraising and awareness campaigns within their own communities.
Another program is the Bhabhisana Baby Project. This newly launched independent project is operating under the umbrella of The Chaeli Campaign’s therapies programs.
Their mission is assess babies (0-2 years) who are at risk of developmental delay and disabilities. Where a need is identified, the project aims to provide multi-disciplinary therapy for the child and support and empowerment to family members and carers, so that every baby may reach their individual potential. The Bhabhisana Baby Project saw its first baby on September 29.
Zelda also spoke about The Chaeli Campaign’s Vocation and Rehabilitation Program. Disability is particularly difficult for older children and young adults, she said. Once a disabled person turns 18, they can find themselves in a vacuum where programs that can help with socialization and skill development are absent.
The Chaeli Campaign holds weekly workshops targeted at intellectually and physically disabled young adults to provide them with an opportunity to learn skills and practice them in a work situation.
Sometimes, Zelda said, it can be difficult to raise funds for these ongoing therapeutic programs, but each one is an important piece in helping to change the lives of people living with disabilities and their families.
After listening to Chaeli’s presentation and spending some time speaking to her afterward, Quinnipiac occupational therapy graduate student Samantha Wondsel summed it up nicely.
“[The Chaeli Campaign] takes a holistic approach – bringing in family, leisure, sports and education,” Wondsel said. “It’s really about putting the person first rather than the disability.”
Chaeli and Zelda along with David T. Ives on Quinnipiac’s campus. Photo: Nicki Dakis-Gallagher