Friday, January 7, 2011

Catherine Wicker: You Are My Hero!

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became [an adult], I gave up childish ways.” 1 Corinthians 13:11 The quote above speaks to most of us, regardless of our religious beliefs. For most of us the quote reminds us of the carefree nature of our own childhood. Frankly, most of us become “grown-ups” when we first fully understand the complexities of life and the uncertainty of it all, when we are no longer able to live relatively carefree. Many children do not get such an experience, though. For some of these children, as with many extremely special things in life, they are like diamonds and other precious metals and gems – by the force of great pressure, their most precious light might shine brightly and provide a beacon to the world. One such beacon and star is Catherine Wicker. Catherine is a 14 year old freshman at Westwood High School, in Austin, Texas. If you were not paying attention, Catherine might appear at first blush like most young people. She is not.

Since the tender age of 5, Catherine had to give up her “childish ways,” and at the age of 10, Catherine had her colon surgically removed because of her health condition. Ulcerative colitis is an auto-immune disease and is caused by an abnormal response of the body’s immune system. The disease is marked by inflammation and ulceration of the colon, symptoms can include bloody diarrhea and severe abdominal pain. In severe cases, patients may in fact have their colons removed; most often, though, the condition only strikes adults this badly and not children so young as Catherine.

While such a condition itself would cause most adults many decades older than Catherine to lose heart in life because of the complexities that it can bring, Catherine at such a young age did not. Catherine simply dug in deeper and became more determined to show that her life had significant meaning and found the joys remaining to her. She has achieved that result. As a poet I could offer words capable of expressing things as beautiful as Catherine’s spirit, but as a lawyer I know that overly worked words do little in comparison to the facts.

Not too many years ago, many may know that I experienced diverticulitis and was on the verge of septic shock in an Austin ER at the age of 39. I was highly fortunate in surviving since septic shock kills a majority of those that suffer it. For many that do survive, they often may lose their kidneys or other organs; I did not but did develop IBS and have other recurrent health problems since that time. I came to understand better that life is fragile and the thought of losing organs was very scary even for me. I had, at least, enjoyed many opportunities up to that point without as much concern. I cannot imagine the weight that more expansive conditions could cause to a person so much younger.

Imagine your own life with such difficulties! Imagine being limited in activities that others enjoy, such as a basic party or a carefree vacation as a child. At such an age, if you are limited, your peers also cannot easily understand why you cannot join them, or how your life must be! Imagine the fear of standing out in such bright light and the desire that most would have to hide in the shadows and suffer silently. Catherine has stood strong and tall, even at her small stature.

In 2004, when Catherine was in the second grade, she stood in the halls of Congress to lobby for the efforts of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. The foundation chose her as one of its two national Local Heroes (now called the Comeback Kids Award) several months later. In 2006, Catherine returned to Congress with her dad, Paul, to again lobby for legislation needed by adults and children with her condition. The following year, Catherine then set her sights on the Texas Legislature, initiating efforts for the Restroom Access Act, HB 416 of the 80th Regular Session, which became law in 2007.

For a bill that was hotly contested by businesses concerned about its effects, Catherine made sure to bear witness on how the bill impacted the needs of children, like herself, and adults, who have a health condition that can, without accommodation, be debilitating. On April 10, 2007, Catherine testified before the House Committee on Public Health for the Restroom Access Act. Catherine later also testified before the Texas Senate. How many of us have taken on the legislative process to help others with such courage? Anyone? I asked Rep. Mark Strama, the author of HB 416, for his thoughts on Catherine. With deep respect and admiration for her, he relayed this to me:

"When I give speeches to students about the government process and how a bill becomes a law, I tell them the story of how Catherine Wicker, while a fifth grader at Caraway Elementary in my district, convinced me to file legislation to help people who, like her suffer from intestinal illnesses. She then testified for the bill in both the House and Senate committee hearings on the bill, lobbied the bill through both houses of the Legislature, and stood next to the Governor as he affixed his signature to the newly created law. She changed the law in Texas to the benefit of 35,000 Texans who suffer these illnesses, and she did it when she was 10 years old. She has since lobbied me to buy Girl Scout cookies for troops overseas and to pass a resolution honoring her favorite teacher. She never stops.
"When she began working with my staff on the legislation we passed together, I remember someone asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up (as if she wasn't already grown up), and she said, 'I want to be chief of staff to a member of the House of Representatives.' Made my chief of staff happy! I remember when we attended the bill signing together 6 months later, and the Governor asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She didn't hesitate: 'Governor.'"
Mark Strama, Member, Texas House of Representives, Dist. 50.

Catherine heart and brilliance is, however, not limited to only governmental affairs in her afternoons after elementary, middle school, and now the ninth grade. While she was at Canyon Vista Middle School, Catherine was selected as its volunteer of the year from Round Rock Independent School District. Although the school district stated that she collected 5,000 letters, Catherine would make sure to correct the report so we know she only collected about 3,000 and then she did a cookie pack of 1,000 c-rats for Operation Cookie. Catherine, after all, is a leader in the Girl Scouts and honesty and integrity are important to her. Catherine has been a Girl Scout for 9 years and has earned the highest award as a Junior Scout (Bronze Award) and as a Cadette Scout (Silver Award). Catherine is currently working on prerequisites for the Gold Award which is the highest award in Girl Scouting.

Over the years, Catherine has also been active in Austin Adoption Day, an annual event of the Austin Bar Association, Child Protective Services, CASA of Travis County, and other affiliated organizations. Being a proud “big sister” to Anna who was adopted, Catherine helped collect toys for several years for the children being adopted at Austin Adoption Day, as well as throughout the year in Austin. The Austin Bar Association recognized Catherine in its February 2006 edition of the Austin Lawyer for her efforts. Another year, Catherine selected Austin Adoption Day to receive gifts at her birthday party. Catherine’s family has a tradition that if she or her sister want a large group of friends to come to a birthday party, they choose a charity to receive the gifts. Catherine and her sister love the idea and the charities are certainly happy, as well, because Catherine and Anna know they have received a lot of blessings already. Catherine would likely tell you that she wants to help children who are less fortunate than herself. With Catherine now in high school, her leadership is growing in the community.

Catherine was selected to be a member of the Youth Advisory Council at Dell Children’s Hospital. Catherine is also a part of Girls Giving Grants, where each girl donates $100 and the group pools all the money together and awards one grant to a charity. This is her age group's equivalent of Impact Austin. Catherine earned her $100 by babysitting last summer. She is also a manager for the Sun Dancers at Westwood and is in the school choir.

Life continues to be much harder for Catherine then most adults, let alone children, regardless of their age. Catherine's serious health problems continue even now, with other complications are on her horizon and even more surgeries likely. She misses school frequently for her illnesses, and for more visits to specialists than can be remembered, who are either trying to address her known issues without certain resolution, or trying to solve other issues also causing her problems still unknown or identified. For Catherine, there may not be a "magic pill" that many of us grew up expecting and wanting - that when you take it, you feel good the next day or next week, and get to go back to playing for weeks, or months, or years. For Catherine, her life will likely always be much harder than most others.

My own health struggles over the last several years have taken a toll, not from simply any individual condition, but the lack of those long periods where I could simply relax, enjoy life, and be. The mental toll on myself has been tough at time, and my struggles has been relatively short term and less serious when compared to Catherine's. However, I try to take courage and strength from knowing that there is a young woman out there, who since the age of 5, has carried more struggles than I may ever know. I also hope that she understands that the world is cheering her on, sending her love, and that she is not alone for she dwells in the hearts and hopes of not only those who knows her, but also those that read this story, or otherwise hear about her amazing courage and spirit.

Catherine, I think I speak for countless people beyond the boundaries I can easily describe, who would tell you, in the words of Bette Midler, "Did you ever know that you're my hero?" You are.

UPDATE:  In 2012, Catherine was recognized by President Barack Obama for her volunteer activities.  For the President's Volunteer Service Award, she performed 284 volunteer hours.   She also participated in Mark Strama's Leadership Academy and was able to meet Sarah Weddington, with whom Catherine is photographed above.  Through her activities, she continues to be increasingly known in Austin and elsewhere for her exceptional character, leadership and intelligence.


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