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Lakes High School senior Chanel Washington, 18, will begin studies at Harvard University this fall.

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- Chanel Washington has a lot going on for a high school senior.

She's on the Youth Council of Lakewood, and involved in Knowledge Bowl, French Club and student government. She was state president of DECA, an organization for students interested in business and marketing, and she loves going to rock concerts.

She's been accepted to four Ivy League universities. She's also been in a wheelchair since she was 5 years old.

Chanel has spinal muscular atrophy, an inherited disease that causes muscles to progressively degenerate. Most people with SMA die as children. But Chanel doesn't let anything hold her back.
"Like I said, (my disease) makes things difficult, but I think even more it pushes me even further," she said.

Growing up as a military child can be hard enough, but Chanel had more challenges to tackle than a dad who was in the Army. Diagnosed at 2 years old, her first doctors didn't expect her to live past 10.

For some, that might have been a cue to give up on dreaming big for their daughter. Not for the Washingtons.

"I just never accepted it, ever," Chanel's mother, Andrea, said. "I didn't let that control my life."
Now, eight years after her physicians determined she should have died, Chanel is Harvard-bound and planning a career in public health policy. More importantly, she's learned not to accept limits of any kind.

"I think Chanel basically turned her disability into an ability," her dad, Roy Washington, said. After retiring from a 22-year career in the Army, he now works as an operations specialist at the Emergency Operations Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Andrea kept her daughter active and involved in the world around her. She also constantly reminded Chanel that her disease affected her body and not her brain, and that a "disabled" life was not her only option.

"You can be anything you want to be (by) using your brain," Andrea said.

This was in Chanel's head in her freshman year at Lakes High School when she saw a picture on the wall of one of her teacher's classrooms. He liked to showcase where his previous year's calculus students had gone. One student had made her way all the way to Harvard University.

It's not something she had ever considered - that an every day student like herself could go from a public high school to the Ivy League. But soon enough, she was hooked on the idea.

"Harvard has been a fixture in my mind, ever since I realized it was a possibility," Chanel said.
She knew she had a lot of work ahead of her. For someone who's always done well in school, Chanel doesn't think she's necessarily the smartest kid in the class.

"I wouldn't call myself naturally intelligent, I just know how to work really hard," she said.

And work hard she did, while taking advantage of every opportunity Lakes offered her. Now, at the end of her senior year, she's been accepted to Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Georgetown, Brown, Duke, Pomona and University of Washington.

"She's always been an overachiever. She always wants to be the best one in class," her father said.
For Andrea, she hopes her daughter can inspire families in similar situations to keep reaching.

"I would like other parents to say, 'Oh, well, my child's disabled - well, that's not it,'" she said.

Chanel doesn't plan to change her attitude or work ethic in college, though she admits she's a little scared about what's coming next. Aside from the academic challenges, she'll be facing snowy winters that cause her wheelchair to breakdown, navigating cobblestone streets and fighting the homesickness of being 3,000 miles away from parents.

Even so, she knows it will work out in the end.

"If it's too difficult, I can just go down the street and get tutored by the MIT kids or something," Chanel said.

Marisa Petrich: marisa.petrich@nwguardian.com

Page last updated Thu April 28th, 2011 at 16:58