Student with cerebral palsy defies odds to graduate with classmates

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Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Kendria Ellis will graduate from Holmes County Central High School later this month.

LEXINGTON — The surgeries for 17-year-old Kendria Ellis began when she was two years old, and a fall at school at 10 years old rendered her homebound and mostly unable to walk.

Another surgery last August, which brought with it weeks in the hospital and a long recovery, helped to prevent the curve in her spine from affecting her organs and eventually killing her.

Despite the ongoing challenges over her lifetime from her struggle with cerebral palsy, Ellis set another goal for herself: to graduate from high school with a standard diploma and attend college.

And come May 27, she will achieve that goal, becoming one of the only homebound students in recent years at the high school to take the ACT, pass all four state tests and graduate with a regular diploma from Holmes County Central High School.

Ellis, who is unable to sit up in a wheelchair for long periods of time and spends most of her time in bed, credits her family and her faith for making it as far as she has.

Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder caused by an injury to or malformation of the brain during development. It primarily affects body movement and muscle coordination. There is currently no cure.

Ellis lights up when she talks about her great grandmother, brother and her mother — who she describes as “superwoman” and her rock.

Every morning, her great grandmother Eula stays with her after Eloise Webster, her mother, leaves for her job at a nursing home around 7:15 a.m. She never misses a doctor’s appointment of Ellis’, either.

And although Ellis’ brother Kendrick now lives in Miami, he still plays a crucial role in the family. He is currently helping her research colleges and will travel home to watch her graduate later this month.

“Her brother was our backbone until he moved a year ago. He was at every appointment. As far as being a teenager coming up, his focus was mostly helping with Kendria,” Webster described. “He didn’t hang out and do all the things younger teens did … He put her before anything.”

Kate Royals/Mississippi Today

Kendria Ellis and her mother Eloise Webster at their home in Lexington.

With her family’s help, Ellis knew she could accomplish what she wanted to do. She didn’t want to settle for the status quo for students in her condition: a high school certificate. She wanted a real diploma.

“We come from a strong, educated family, and I wanted to keep it going and not let anything stop me from getting my education,” she said.

The achievement of that goal didn’t come without its challenges, though. Ellis’ teacher Frances Bartee, Holmes County School District’s homebound instructor for special education, has worked with Ellis on and off since she started high school.

Since Ellis can’t sit up for long periods of time without being in pain, Bartee would come to her room three times a week and teach while she was lying on her side in bed.

Bartee, 73 years old and with a case load that ranges from three-year-old children in Head Start to high schoolers at Holmes County Central High School, laughed when describing their struggles over the years, particularly in math.

“In the morning I had to go to her teacher’s class to get the instructions (for Algebra I) … and you can imagine trying to teach a student who’s across the bed and that’s the way the presentation was,” she recalled. “I’m like, ‘Ken, if we just – if we can just get a C we’re going to be OK. And Ken was like ‘But I want a B, I don’t want a C!’”

Then the high school years came, and with it Algebra II, Spanish and state tests, along with the ACT, the test that measures high school students’ college readiness.

“I thought we were done with Algebra – then I found out we had Algebra II,” Bartee said, laughing. “And Spanish – I took French! So both of us … we’re learning this stuff together.”

Then came the ACT, which Ellis was registered and ready to take her junior year. But the day of the test, she got sick. She knew she’d have a chance again her senior year, but a miscommunication between the school and ACT regarding the testing window and requirements for administering the test at home caused a hiccup.

But the combined efforts of Bartee, the high school’s special education department head Ravi Dutt, and Ellis secured her test scores and gave her what she needed to apply to college.

Ellis plans to pursue film and criminal justice in college, majors that would complement her passion for creative writing. She spends much of her spare time writing poetry and plays that she hopes to one day turn into movies and television shows. Criminal justice, she said, will help her with any criminal writing she does.

She’s even used her poetry to help quell her mother’s anxiety before her last major surgery in August.

“Normally I’m the one with the strength, but this last time she had all the strength. She sent me this poem one night and I cried because when I read it, I was like ‘I should be telling her this,’” Webster said tearfully.

Miraculously, all of the warnings the doctor had given them about what could happen – she could bleed out, be admitted to intensive care for days – didn’t materialize.

“The praying paid off and all of her faith and belief in God – she kept saying ‘Momma, God’s got this, you just have to turn it over to Him,’” she said. “The things they said could happen didn’t happen. The things that might happen didn’t happen.”

With the surgery and high school in her past, she is turning her attention to applying to college and hopefully starting an online program. And beyond that, she has even more goals, including starting a charity for children and adults with cerebral palsy, in addition to another in honor of her cousin who passed away when she was 23 years old from a rare form of cancer.

“I’d like to do a lot of charity work because I’ve been through so much … and there’s always somebody out there who has it worse than I do,” she said.