Sounds of Hope: CF student eager to participate despite physical limitations

In a high school where many students have grown up together since Kindergarten or even before, the hallways are filled with familiar faces, smiles and hellos. However, some students fade more into the background than others. One student at Cedar Falls High School has been attending classes for years and loves music and art, yet many students do not even know her name. Meet Elissa Radke.

Elissa was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy. Her mother, De Radke, shares the basics of her condition. “Cerebral Palsy just means a brain injury at birth. Lots of people may have cerebral palsy. They may not be able to move their thumb right. You can’t control that muscle is basically what it is, so you can have a very mild case of it. Elissa just tends to be on the more severe side of that,” De Radke said.

Due to Elissa’s condition, her daily routine is different than most high schoolers, yet it does have some similarities. “She’s usually up about 5:30 to 6 every morning. She’s an early riser, and then one of us helps her. She’s G-tube fed, which means she has a tube that’s hooked into her stomach. One of us will start getting her breakfast, and the other person will start getting her dressed. Then she gets on a bus on a school day, and she comes to school. Then she’s in Mrs. Frahm’s room until 3 o’clockish and then comes home,” De Radke said. “When she gets home, we usually get her out of the chair. They do get her out of the chair here at school, but it’s still majority time spent in the chair. We have a big mat that we let her kick on that mat for a while, and then what we have is called a stander, so we let her stand up, so she gets weight on her legs. If she needs a bath, she’ll have a bath that night, or she’ll lay more on the mat. Then, she’ll be back into bed. We have music in her room, and we have books on tape, so there’s always something going on. If it gets too quiet in her room, she’ll start verbalizing that she wants company because she’s always been kind of social.”

While Elissa goes to school just like other teens, her learning process is different since she lacks the ability to communicate. “They do a lot of helping her, so they’ll do what they call hand over hand. In art, they would help her paint the picture or weave the paper. They would give her all the information that the class is covering, but somebody would help her answer the questions.”

John Radke, Elissa’s father, is said he is glad to see Elissa getting the same information other students get in an educational environment, even if there is no way to evaluate his daughter on material. “So, we don’t have a way to test her. We don’t know. She might be learning it all. We just give her the information. She hears the same conversations everyone else hears in the classroom,” John Radke said. “In high school, she’s more in a separate class environment, but all the way through ninth grade she went to Hansen, she went to Peet, she went to all the classes, so there was no difference in what she had an opportunity to learn. It’s just there’s no test, no real test. She has a 3.1 grade average, and no one has ever really had her tested.”

Besides getting information, keeping Elissa in school is important to her family for positive social aspects as well. “In some ways it’s just going through the steps, but in other ways, she loves being around people. She’s happier when she’s around people, with peers,” De Radke said.

In addition to being around people, Elissa is also her happiest when she is surrounded by music; for instance, she joins the concert choir on stage at Cedar Falls High School. “She understands when you guys are getting together in the evening to do a performance because she will come home that night and be so excited. She’ll just be shrieking, and I’ll have to tell her, ‘If you want to go, you have to calm down. You cannot sit up there and shriek because no one will be able to hear the music, so if you want to go, I need you to calm down.’ And she will,” De Radke said.

Not only is Elissa eager to participate and willing to be quiet in order to do so, she also may be able to know what’s going on in the music. “When she was in 5th or 6th grade she was at a concert at Peet. When the concert was over, one of the parents came over to us and said, ‘Was Elissa singing with the choir?’ Because when she’s sitting up there with the choir, if you look at the videos, and it’s almost on all of them, when the choir is singing her mouth moves and matches the choir’s mouths, and it’s the same exact time when everybody else is, and she’s not making a sound. So she’s singing quietly with the choir,” John Radke said.

Even though Elissa is unable to speak and share her thoughts, she remains inspirational to people. “I think people learn a lot from Elissa, and that’s what I find amazing. She says nothing, and yet I think a lot of people learn more of the human qualities of life from her,” De Radke said.

For those wondering how to treat Elissa or make her feel more included, her father has some basic advice. “Treat her normal. She’s just a normal person trapped in a body that doesn’t move right, and if you think of that as any of your friends who’s just a normal person who knows everything you know and you treat her like a normal person, it’s the most comfortable,” John Radke said. “It’s amazing to me how young children treat her like they treat all their friends and as we get older, we become less comfortable around people that are different than us. We start to push them away, so it’s a little harder to walk up to them and say ‘Hi Elissa!’ as you’re walking down the hall like you say hi to everybody else as you walk down the hall.”

Just like everyone else, Elissa’s future is uncertain, but even though many questions about Elissa remain unanswered, her family stands by her to help her every step of the way. “Everybody’s different, and in Elissa’s case, she’s more different than most, but in the end everybody’s got their life path, and you got to figure it out as you go, and we’re going to try to help her figure it out as we go,” John Radke said.


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