From the breeze on her skin to the vivid images her eyes devoured, Brooke Ellison soaked in aura of the oldest institution in America as her mom wheeled her past the revered halls of learning. She, a quadriplegic since eleven from a near-fatal car accident, would begin college life as a Harvard freshman. The experience would be included in a book and movie of Brooke's amazing testimony of determination and faith in what an individual can accomplish if they put their mind to it.
During her time at Harvard, Brooke's mother Jean lived with her on campus to help with personal needs. Once ready for the day, Brooke would spend time finishing any last minute coursework, go to class, and spend time on campus until mid-afternoon visiting friends or doing research. She would use her voice activated computer to write papers and send e-mails. It took a little longer than the other students, but her enjoyment of the mentally challenging and stimulating study helped her forge a path she never thought possible.
“I felt most whole when I was at college. I loved the studies, the friends, the intellectual discussions that come with college life,” shares Brooke, remembering the relationships and intense scholarship filling every crack and crevice of the old campus. She adds, “The dorm life was very communal and family oriented.”
Brooke would become the first quadriplegic to graduate Harvard. She would stay to get her Master's with honors, supported by the loving commitment of her mother who stayed with her, attending classes and helping her with written tests and studies.
Brooke's friendships would also play a significant role in her life. One close friendship lasted through many diverse experiences even after college - and it all started with a load of dirty laundry.
At the beginning of her sophomore year at Harvard, Brooke and Jean headed to their new room and took a wrong turn. The ancient halls refused to give up their secrets - leaving the pair unsure where to go. A lovely young woman, named Sonali, also got turned around searching for the laundry room and came across them. Helping them navigate into an area she knew well enough, Sonali's easy smile and generous spirit formed an instant bond with the girl in the wheelchair who never met a stranger, who enjoyed learning about the lives of other students and their wishes and dreams as she pursued her own.
After college, the two alumni fell in and out of touch. Reconnecting at a five year reunion, the two women renewed their desire to stay connected and they did. With Sonali in New York City and Brooke on Long Island, the two would visit and laugh about their years in college where the friendship first formed and cemented.
“Sonali told me that she reevaluated her life based on mine and that the events I have experienced give her perspective,” retells Brooke candidly. Years before, when Brooke first learned she might never feel below her neck again, when she learned she would be wheelchair bound and respirator dependent, she decided at that point never to give up. The love of her friends and family gave her the hope that allowed her mind to take her places other people only dream of accomplishing.
“He pulled together the right people to make a movie of Brooke's life. His name was Christopher Reeve.”
Later, Sonali introduced Brooke to her boyfriend, the man who would become Sonali's husband. After getting engaged, she asked Brooke for a favor unlike many brides who need helping picking bridesmaids or flowers. She wanted Brooke to perform her wedding. Always eager to try new things and to help a dear friend, Brooke got her Reverendship online and officiated the marriage ceremony between Sonali and her husband.
Today, Sonali sits on the board of the foundation started by Brooke which works to change public perception about stem cell research. The organization has worked to create a documentary, Hope Deferred, regarding the controversial issue. Armed with the film, Brooke speaks publicly about stem cells and their critical benefit to the life-changing research.
Serving together on the National Organization on Disability, another friend came into Brooke's life who saw an incredible story of stamina and determination and decided it was worth telling in film. He pulled together the right people to make a movie of Brooke's life. His name was Christopher Reeve. Her movie would be his last as he struggled with his own physical obstacles and eventually died of complications. After being thrown from a horse, he too lived as a quadriplegic and fought incredible personal obstacles to achieve amazing results. The handsome movie star who once played Superman worked tirelessly to bring stories like Brooke's to the forefront of American minds.
Through the filming of the TV movie, Brooke was asked to the film set where she learned directly from Reeve about movie production. Filmed in New Orleans, the trip down was her first real vacation since childhood. She was asked by US TODAY, who followed her story for several years, to write a diary of the experience of having a movie made about one's life. Deciding to ride down with her parents, she writes of her fascination with the beautiful scenery.
Upon arrival, Brooke recalls the excitement of meeting and spending time with the actresses with whom she would trust the most intimate details of her life. Brooke would also enjoy sitting with Reeve in the “Bat Cave” where he watched the monitors and directed from behind the scene in an air-conditioned room.
As exciting as the movie making industry is, Brooke's sharp mind was already one step ahead. All these experiences would help her and Sonali develop the documentary needed to educate the public on the issue dearest to her heart. She hopes stem cell research will someday change the capabilities of medicine to heal the wounded and bring mobility and life back to those in pain, who have perhaps given up hope for a miracle. Her foundation, The Brooke Ellison Project, actively educates and promotes the benefits and breakthrough news of recent research. Through it all, her family and friends are close by her side giving her the encouragement to persevere in her goals.
“One of the few guarantees in life is that it will never turn out the way we expect. But, rather than let the events in our lives define who we are, we can make the decision to define the possibilities in our lives,” encourages Brooke as she gives a presentation to children who want to know the gamut of this special speaker's life. They want to connect to this unique individual and they ask everything from her favorite color to her favorite sports team. She leaves them with the hope that has sustained her through it all: faith to overcome, faith to achieve, faith that one can make a difference in the conditions of discouragement and inopportunity in this world.
Brooke Ellison is a motivational public speaker and the focus of a book and movie about her varied accomplishments in the face of incredible physical obstacles. Through Christopher Reeve, Brooke also befriended Diana De Rosa, his road manager, PR assistant and photographer who took many of the recent pictures of Brooke at various events. To learn more or contact Brooke, go to her website http://www.brookeellison.com/
Thank you Brooke, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Sarah Peppel and Story of My Life®