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Everybodys cheerleader

Forest Grove High School sophomore Makenna Sewell, a consummate encourager for her peers, doesn't let anything, including muscular dystrophy, get in her way
by: John Schrag Forest Grove High sophomore Patrick Barrios leaps over Makenna Sewell’s wheelchair during Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller” in Friday’s lip-sync contest.

Sometime after the New Year, Makenna Sewell plans to get her Oregon driver's license. For most 16-year-olds, that's not a particularly unusual milestone. But for Makenna, who's president of her sophomore class and manager of the track team at Forest Grove High School, it'll be another hard-won achievement true to the spirit of a scrappy youngster who has grown into a beautiful, talented and giving young woman while battling a debilitating disease.

Makenna was diagnosed as a toddler with spinal muscular atrophy type 3, a form of muscular dystrophy. The condition has sapped the strength in her lower body and put her in an electric wheelchair, which she deftly navigates through the hallways at FGHS on long days that sometimes start as early as 6 a.m.

Her parents - Shawnda Sewell, a science teacher at Forest Grove's Neil Armstrong Middle School, and Brandon Sewell, a realtor with John L. Scott Market Center in town - say their only daughter is still 100 percent ambulatory at home but needs her power 'wheels' to get around at the local high school because an unintentional bump could send Makenna toppling over.

'I don't walk at all at school,' said the fresh-faced brunette. 'My balance is bad.'

Makenna is also starting to notice some upper body weakness and has a hard time lifting her left arm. Whizzing through the campus corridors, she responds with a wide smile and raucous giggles when friends yell, 'Shotgun!' and grab a ride on the back of her wheelchair.

For Makenna, who takes advanced placement courses and is active in leadership class, those intangible common denominators - laughing, goofing around and sharing personal foibles - are precious moments.

'I like knowing the other kids, and I like them knowing me,' Makenna said. 'I listen to them and value their opinions. I try to be the voice of my class.'

Putting others at ease

It's important to Makenna that her health issues not define who she is. When she's in public, she pokes fun at herself in good-natured, disarming ways.

'I have quite the wicked sense of humor - I'm kinda bad about it,' she noted. 'I feel like when you're in a power chair, you have 'handicapped' written across your forehead.

'I make cripple jokes so kids know I'm approachable. I want people to see me for me.'

When Makenna ran for sophomore class president last spring, the then-freshman broke the ice by selecting the campaign slogan, 'Where there's a Wheel, There's a Way,' in an attempt to put other teens at ease with her disability.

It worked. She won in a landslide, and has spent fall semester meeting with her classmates and administrators, serving as a liaison between the two. The experience has cemented her relationship with both groups and boosted Makenna's confidence to a new level.

'I definitely feel like I have confidence in myself,' Makenna said. 'You have to be, because being in a chair isn't something you can hide.'

Last week, with just five days of school to go before winter break, Makenna was busy helping to put the finishing touches on the sophomore class' lip-sync performance, a FGHS tradition.

'We got some dancers together and came up with a mix of music,' she said. 'We had about a month to learn our routine.'

With FGHS activities director Howard Sullivan overseeing preparations for the competition, Makenna posed a question: Could each class work to include at least one special needs student as an active participant in the contest, a tradition at FGHS?

Sullivan's answer was yes.

'Things were quite different this year,' said Makenna. 'We had 110 kids from our class out on the floor - more than ever before.'

Her partner spun her around the gym in a manual wheelchair, tipping her back during a number featuring the words, 'I'm falling' and dancing the tango with her.

'I was so nervous before we went on,' Makenna said. 'It was totally stressful, but it was so fun. We pulled it all together in our final practice, and during the competition I thought we nailed it.'

Up in the grandstand, Shawnda Sewell cheered for her daughter - and also for the camaraderie she witnessed on the floor below her.

'Makenna has spoken in front of groups lots of times, but this was her first time dancing in public,' Shawnda said. 'No one had ever danced in a chair before.'

Afterward, even before the judges rendered their decision, Makenna beamed.

'It feels so cool to have all that support from my class,' she said. 'My school is completely behind me.

'This year I haven't even been worried about kids staring at me funny. Kids see me for me now instead of just seeing my wheelchair.'

Athletic director Doug Thompson saw promise in Makenna, too, allowing her to switch from an adaptive PE class to a regular class this year.

'I have a key to everywhere in the school,' Makenna said with pride. '[Teachers] make accommodations for me. It feels good that they believe in me.'

Changing the rules

The bespectacled dynamo, a first-rate math and history student, hasn't yet entered the dating scene - 'That's not where my focus is,' she said - but has entertained thoughts of college and a career beyond that.

She'd like to attend a university in California and eventually embark on a career in the medical field. 'Maybe an anesthesiologist,' Makenna ventured.

'Or a health care administrator,' her mother countered.

For now, she's concentrating on staying healthy - and involved in her favorite school-related activities.

'Right now I'm feeling pretty good,' said Makenna, who admits to occasional fatigue when she pushes herself too hard. 'But now that my disability has advanced, I have to be more careful.'

Twice an ambassador

Makenna spent Sunday afternoon getting her wish - from the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Oregon.

She's no stranger to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a nonprofit health agency dedicated to combating neuromuscular diseases. She was Oregon Goodwill Ambassador in 2005 and National Goodwill Ambassador in 2007.

The state MDA chapter granted her a wish two years ago, but at the time, Makenna wasn't sure where she wanted to go. After taking a cruise to Alaska with her family in 2009, she honed in on her goal: someplace warm, sunny and adventurous.

'Everything is [handicapped] accessible, and there's something to do every hour of the day,' she said. 'I'm looking forward to the excursions, like swimming with the dolphins and visiting a turtle hatching farm.'

She's excited that visits to Jamaica, the Grand Cayman Islands and Cozumel, Mexico are on the itinerary. And, her three brothers - Grayson, 12, Braydon, 7, and Grafton, 3 - will stay busy with activities geared to their age groups.

'It hasn't really hit me yet that I'm going,' noted Makenna, who'll be up early Friday morning with her family to board a flight at Portland International Airport.

Makenna plans to take a skydiving lesson after her next successful six-month checkup. 'I guess I'm a bit of a daredevil,' she admitted.

She's defied some of her doctors' grimmest predictions.

'I was supposed to stop walking in kindergarten,' she said. 'I think I'm just always changing the rules.'