Minnetonka High School senior Kelly Parnell, who will graduate Thursday, June 7, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, said that having a disability is not stopping her dreams of spreading joy and helping others; something she’s already done during her time at Minnetonka Public Schools.
Parnell, who describes herself as a “social butterfly,” always has a warm smile for everyone she meets. She never forgets to tell people how much she loves them or what they mean to her.
Parnell grew up in Shorewood with her mother Amy and her older sister Laura, and younger brother Ben. When Kelly was 6 years old, her father, Charlie, died at the age of 40.
Parnell said that she remembers only a little bit of her father, but she always remembered him as a very kind person. This inspired her to bring joy to others in whatever way she could.
After her father died, Parnell’s mother became a single mother.
“She didn’t think she could be a single mom, but she did and she’s a brave mom and I love her,” Parnell said. “She’s my hero and she’s always been there for me.”
When Parnell was a child, she had to overcome another hurdle, her physical disability. She was diagnosed with ataxia, a degenerative disease of the nervous system that causes slurred speech, stumbling, falling, and incoordination due to degeneration of the cerebellum in the brain, which controls movement. In addition, she also has hypertonia, a condition where there is too much muscle tone so that arms or legs become stiff and difficult to move.
“The hard part about it is, I ask my family all of the time, ‘why do I have a disability? I don’t want it! I want to be like normal people,’” Parnell said. “Still, I try to be my best.”
Parnell received help for her disability when she attended Deephaven Elementary, Minnetonka Middle School East and lastly, the high school. She said that she has struggled with her speech, writing and other learning skills because her disability causes her to become shaky and wobbly.
“I don’t want to have a disability and I kind of see it as a difficulty,” she said. “Some days I can deal with my disability and others are hard for me. I try to let it go and deal with it because I’m going to have this disability for the rest of my life. I say to myself, ‘so what if I’m not perfect! I will keep trying to do the best I can.’”
Kelly said she continues to challenge herself daily. She credits her high school special education teacher, Susan Walker, for helping her overcome the difficulties..
“She’s always been there for me, and she has a special place in my heart,” Parnell said. “I will miss her most of all. She has taught me so much.”
The Parnell family bestowed the Charlie Parnell Award for Excellence in Special Education to Walker May 10 at Minnetonka’s Celebration of Excellence awards ceremony. They’ve been giving out the award annually.
Kelly said that she has had many fond memories of her time at Minnetonka High School.
Parnell was a member of Art Club, where she enjoyed painting and drawing. The best part was, “I get to be social and meet new people,” she said.
Parnell was a member of Unified Club, where disabled students can play sports including basketball, soccer and baseball.
She said she also enjoyed volunteering in the community. In her Transition Plus course, the class volunteered at the ICA Food Shelf.
“I like helping people and making sure people have the right food they need,” she said. “I just love people because I’m nice, and they are nice and I love to help out and organize.”
Parnell said her siblings’ kindness helped her succeed.
When she was crowned homecoming queen her senior year, Parnell’s brother Ben, a sophomore, was there cheering her on with tears of joy in his eyes.
“My brother Ben always has my back and he’s so nice and awesome,” she said. “I’m lucky to have him in my life.”
Kelly said that her sister and best friend Laura has always been present and willing to help her. The sisters often spend time together by going shopping, walking their dog Molly, indulging in some ice cream at Adele’s and watching episodes of “The Bachelor.”
“Laura’s so kind and she’s always there for me,” Kelly said. “She has the kindest heart and I love her so much.”
Parnell will continue her transitional learning at Eden Prairie Public Schools. Her courses will teach her about living on her own, cooking, paying bills and other activities.
“I’m kind of nervous because it’s a lot to take on but I’m excited about making new friends,” she said.
Kelly said her dream is to become a teacher, nursing home assistant or daycare provider. She received some teaching experience at Minnetonka when she shadowed teachers at Clear Springs Elementary and she read stories and taught to kindergarten students.
“I am inspired by Kelly’s constant determination,” Laura Parnell said. “She isn’t afraid to do anything, and she constantly challenges people’s assumptions of those with special needs. Sure there are days she gets sad and frustrated and just wants to be like everyone else, but ultimately she knows that it is our differences that make us unique and beautiful, and Kelly is no exception. Kelly is the one person I know who shows love and compassion to everyone she encounters, and she is my daily reminder to be kind to others and to love myself exactly as I am.”
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