Denise Kelley, teacher at Timpanogos High School can say, that she has walked a mile in the shoes of her students.
Just as her life after graduation had begun it got postponed for a few years. She was diagnosed with a large life threatening brain tumor on the right side of her brain. The tumor was on the brain stem. She underwent 12 hours of surgery performed by two prominent Neurosurgeons in Utah County.
During her intense and long recovery she learned how people with disabilities are treated.
Denise wore an eye patch over her right eye; one of her optic nerves had been severed.
She looked very much like a stroke victim; she had not had a struck.
Her locks of long beautiful auburn hair were gone; Denise was completely bald with the classic brain surgery scar. She wore hats except when volunteering at BYU she followed the rules and wore a wig…no hats for women.
Denise applied for rehabilitation assistance from the state. She underwent testing to determine what she would be able to do. When the counselor reported back to her he sympathetically told her that her dream of becoming a teacher was not achievable; however; he felt that she would make a good teachers aid.
Denise was even more determined to become a teacher after meeting with her voc rehab counselor. And she did just what she was told she couldn‘t do. She went to school until she was old enough to serve a full time mission for the church of latter day saints.
She served an honorable mission but did have to come home early because of debilitating headaches. And then; though it took everything that Denise had to do to study and graduate with a Bachelor of Arts and history; her master’s degree in education and certified as teacher for special needs severe to profound disabilities K – 12.
Denise doesn’t let the fact the she has a chronic illness affect her teaching; she doesn’t use the fact that she has a brain tumor (meningioma; slowest growing form of cancerous brain tumor) as a crutch to get extra attention and extra help.
Denise serves her students as an advocate. This year she had to interrupt a meeting of special needs teens; parents and teachers at a young women’s teaching session; the speaker continually referred to the teens as mentally retarded. Denise advocated for the teens in the group and asks that they be referred to as teens with special needs.
Doing such things can be awkward and misunderstood.
She gathers her flock at the beginning of school and returns them safely to their buses at the end of the day.
Denise tells me often that she learns so much more from her students than they learn from her. Knowing what she has gone through would help each of them and their parents see that she truly knows what they go through.
While teaching and with significant fatigue after a long day of teaching she served as a counselor in the special needs young women’s group. She recently left her position due fatigue and stress.
As her mama, I have seen how passionate Denise is about special needs students. She attends events that honor or in some way highlight one or more of her students. She talks about how much she enjoys student peers, parents and other members of the team at Timpanogos high who give so much to help her students become as independent as they can be. That is her goal.
As she goes to bed each night she passes a huge stack of MRIs. I think that she often wonders what the next one will show; will the tumor be pressing harder against her carotid artery; how far will it be impinging on her brain stem. Then she will probably say to herself what she often says to me; mom “God never gives us more than we can handle.”