Wella helps open the door to a great high school career

With assistance from her companion dog, Schmidt has an enriching experience at Granite Bay High School
By: Kiersten Schmidt Special to The Press Tribune
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Standing at Granite Bay High School’s graduation last Saturday morning with my dog, Wella, by my side was something I have dreamed of since my freshman year. As part of the school choir all four years at Granite Bay, I have had the opportunity to attend the graduation ceremony each year as part of the commencement’s program. I have been inspired by many speeches delivered by both students and faculty and I too wanted to be an inspiration for others. Though I was not the valedictorian or the student body president, I am proof that dreams do come true when you challenge yourself and believe you can do it. I was part of the graduation ceremony with my dream of inspiring and challenging people to be able to look differently at people living with disabilities. I was born with a condition that affects one in every 150 children. I have autism. Some people with autism are exceptionally bright but struggle with their social skills. Others, like myself, are challenged both academically and socially. Having two sisters who did not have a disability, made me even more aware of how different my life was. I so wanted to have friends and have lots of fun like they always did. I remember praying every night, asking God why he gave me this disability. I remember feeling so lonesome all the time and praying God would help me find a friend. It was about this time that I learned about Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that gives dogs to people with disabilities. I applied for one and a year and a half later, I received a CCI dog of my very own. Having a dog in a blue and yellow vest by your side is a people magnet. I felt so comfortable talking to people about Wella, that my life with autism began to change. Just after getting Wella it was time for me to start high school. I was extremely anxious and nervous, since school had never been a very positive experience for me. At the beginning of my freshman year I remember getting a flyer about building floats for homecoming. I really wanted to go but I was so scared, so my mom took me and stayed and I remember having so much fun. There were lots of student government kids there and I’ll never forget how nice they all were to me. I went to the next float party and took Wella with me because I still wasn’t comfortable going by myself yet and I knew everyone would love Wella. The other kids asked me lots of questions and I explained that Wella helped me with my social skills and she was my companion dog. I’m not sure what they thought, but I do know that I met more people my first couple of months in high school than I did the entire eight years prior to that. I continued to go to all the float parties and was asked to be Minnie Mouse on the freshman float that year. Since Wella always helped me meet people, I started taking her to school and hoped she might be able to help me there too. Someone from the high school newspaper decided to do an article on Wella and me and we actually made the front page. I am convinced that story changed how the next four years of high school would be. I joined the choir my freshman year, because I love to sing. Walking into the choir room every day always felt like a safe place and I knew people there truly cared about me and looked beyond my disability. I joined student government my sophomore year. Mrs. Givens and the kids in student government are definitely some of the kindest, most compassionate people I have ever known. I’ve attended lots of dances with these classmates and overcome many challenges on some of our retreats together. My life has changed dramatically because of the people at Granite Bay High School. My choir family, student government buddies, amazing teachers and so many of my classmates have truly blessed me with the gift of friendship. They have been able to look past my disability and see me as a person. I have come to look at my disability as a bump in the road of life that may just take me a little longer to get over, but I know I will get there eventually. Having autism has definitely made me feel like a failure many times in life. I guess that is why I was so touched by something I heard a teacher say in his speech at one of the graduations I attended. He said, “Failing is not being a failure, but giving up is.” I will never give up. I challenge everyone to make a difference in the life of someone with a disability. Embrace their differences with kindness and compassion and think what it might be like to walk a day, a week, a month or even a lifetime in their shoes. Lastly, my fellow classmates of the graduating class of 2009, I want to thank you for making my four years here at Granite Bay High School the best four years of my life. Kiersten Schmidt, Granite Bay High School graduate, class of 2009