This story was originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.”
—George Bernard Shaw
At first glance, Nicole Gonzalez is someone who has nothing to stand in her way as a challenge—she has a beautiful smile and a dry sense of humor. Like many people who live and work at Orange Grove Center though, she has experienced a lifetime of challenges.
Since her childhood battle for life, nothing that Gonzalez has experienced has been able to stop her dead in her tracks. In fact, Gonzalez exudes an unusually resilient strength and determination to follow her dream to become an Olympian.
This summer in Los Angeles, California, Gonzalez will be the only Chattanoogan and only one of three Tennesseans representing Team USA in the 2015 Special Olympics World Games.
Debra Lewis had a completely normal pregnancy, but once her baby daughter Nicole was born into this world, a bacterial infection overtook the infant’s body, quite suddenly. Living in LaFayette, Louisiana at the time, the young family found themselves in the Intensive Care Unit at LaFayette General Medical Center wondering if their baby would make it through the night.
“At 4:30 in the morning, we were awakened by the ICU nurse telling Nicole’s dad and I to stay by her side until her little body expired,” Lewis recalls. “The doctors called her situation ‘hopeless’.” With her liver function quickly declining, the doctor decided to transfer baby Nicole, in hopes she would have enough time to receive a much-needed liver transplant at Tulane University Medical Center in New Orleans.
Three months later, baby Nicole was released from Tulane University Medical Center, living proof that her own life-threatening situation was not hopeless, as the doctors had said. “It was extremely humbling to walk out of the hospital with my daughter that day,” Lewis shares. “We had witnessed so many parents leaving empty handed.”
As Gonzalez grew into her school-age years, some lingering battle scars began to present. “We learned that during everything she had been through as a baby, Nicole had suffered a stroke at some point,” Lewis says. “We didn’t know this until she was eight years old, when she was having speech issues and dragging her right foot somewhat.”
Medical tests revealed that Gonzalez had suffered a massive stroke during her fight for life as an infant. The stroke destroyed the part of Gonzalez’ brain that processes speech and language. Doctors suggested the family forgo continuing Gonzalez’ academics, given her challenges, but Lewis refused to accept their recommendation and began teaching her daughter as much as she could on her own.
“Nicole has challenges with grammar and money, “ Lewis says, “But she is high functioning and her condition was never classified.”
After a long search including traveling across the country and researching online for a place that could provide her daughter with high quality of life and comprehensive support, Lewis found Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Just one year ago, mother and daughter moved to the Chattanooga area to begin a new chapter in Gonzalez’ life.
“Orange Grove Center has far surpassed anything we could have imagined and Dr. Rick Rader has been so wonderful to us,” Lewis says. “It’s been an amazing, growing year.”
A Dream Awakens
While living in Louisiana, Gonzalez had participated as a middle school student in both local and state Special Olympics. Around the same time Gonzalez was watching the Summer Olympics in China on television one day when a dream awakened inside of her.
“Mom, I want to do that,” Gonzalez said, “I want to be in the Olympics.” Lewis chuckled to herself and thought, “Yeah, okay sure.” Little did Lewis know, however, that her daughter would see the dream through. Finding a new community at Orange Grove Center where she really felt like she belonged, Gonzalez began work in the Recycling Program where she’s made new friends and enjoys activities as a resident. Gonzalez also began an Olympic training regimen under the coaching of T.C. Cox, Coordinator of Health Promotion and Recreation at Orange Grove Center.
“I started here in July, and I got a phone call and they told me: ‘You’re going to be Nicole’s new coach’,” Cox says. “It’s been awesome because we teach each other.” Gonzalez agrees with her coach: “He teaches me a lot of stuff and I teach him a lot of stuff so that’s good.”
Preparing to compete in not one but three events during the 2015 Special Olympics World Games, Gonzalez is training for the 100m, 400m relay, and shot put competitions. Five days a week, Gonzalez faithfully trains with Cox. “Mondays are ‘Leg’ days. Tuesdays are ‘Upper Body’ days. Wednesdays are ‘Core’ days. Thursdays are ‘Sweat and Yoga’ days. And Fridays are ‘Physical Therapy’ days,” Gonzalez and Cox recount together.
Do Your Best
After years of overcoming challenges, training, and competing in local and state Special Olympics, Gonzalez is finally seeing her dream coming true this summer. During the week of July 25 through August 2, 2015, she will join 7,000 Special Olympians representing 177 countries from around the world for the Special Olympics World Games.
“When I was 14 I saw the Olympics on TV,” Gonzalez shares. “I thought it was an awesome thing to do. I saw people happy, doing new things and that was something I wanted to do.”
Gonzalez looks forward to representing Team USA. In addition to living her dream, she also seems to have an innate sense that with great privileges come great responsibilities, as the saying goes.
“I am a spokesperson to tell other kids it doesn’t matter that you have a disability or problem,” she says. “You can do anything. Believe in yourself. And do your best.”
Learn more about the work of Orange Grove Center at orangegrovecenter.com
Photography courtesy of Orange Grove Center