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October 25, 2014

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Special-needs teacher turns to crowdfunding for her special needs

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L.E. Baskow

Whitney Elementary School special-needs teacher Elizabeth Allen, who has spina bifida, is seen in her home with her son Daniel, 10, Monday, Nov. 4, 2013.

Living With Spina Bifida

Whitney Elementary School special-needs teacher Elizabeth Allen, who has spina bifida, helps her children, Daniel, 10, left, and Catherine, 6, with their homework Monday, Nov. 4, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Elizabeth Allen sits at her dining room table, flanked by her two young children.

It’s a recent Monday night, and the 37-year-old mother is helping Daniel and Catherine complete their homework.

“What needs to be fixed with this sentence?” Allen asks her 6-year-old daughter, pointing at a worksheet. “You need to dot the ‘i’ here.”

Swiveling around in her wheelchair, Allen turns to her 10-year-old son, who is reading a Harry Potter book. Allen’s eyes light up with excitement as the two chat about magic spells.

Occasionally, Allen glances at a nearby wall clock. Its sound echoes through the room.

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

Allen is able to sit in her wheelchair for only 30 minutes at a time before she returns to bed rest.

Half-hour up, four hours down, Allen’s doctors have told her. That’s because Allen suffers from a gaping red pressure sore that makes it painful for her to sit.

Despite the burning pain on her bottom, Allen manages to get out of bed every morning and drive to Whitney Elementary School, where she teaches a group of 24 special-needs students. The students need her, and so she goes, Allen says.

“I know what being in special ed is like,” Allen says. “I just want to show these kids there’s more to life than what people say is wrong with you.

“You are not less or defective,” Allen tells her students. “You are just different, and that’s OK.”

•••

When Allen was born, doctors told her parents their baby was defective.

They said Allen wouldn’t live past her third birthday because Allen was born with the most severe form of spina bifida – Latin for “split spine.”

The congenital disorder occurs when babies are born with holes in their vertebrae, causing the nerves in the spinal cord to jut out from the spine and pinch down on nerve endings. This often leaves patients paralyzed from the waist down, unable to walk or even control their bowel movements.

Allen, however, counts herself lucky. She was born able to move her right leg.

Allen’s father, a physician, sought experimental treatments that saved Allen and allowed her to live a normal life.

Doctors reset Allen’s spinal cord and placed a stent in her skull that relieved cranial pressure from trapped spinal fluids. They reset the bones in her clubfeet. They grafted muscle tissue from her healthy right leg and transplanted it in her useless left leg. To treat Allen’s incontinence, doctors even fashioned a new bladder out of some tissue.

After more than a dozen surgeries, Allen was able to walk using crutches and leg braces. A bad fall when she was 12 forced Allen into a wheelchair.

But don’t tell Allen she’s confined to one.

“My disability doesn’t define me,” Allen said. “My wheelchair is a tool that helps me get through my life. I can have a job, I can teach, I can do anything in a chair.”

Every morning, Allen rolls down to her Chevrolet sedan, transfers herself into the driver’s seat and uses a pulley system to stow away her foldable wheelchair into a storage unit atop her vehicle. Using hand controls, she drives to school.

Earlier this year, however, Allen developed a painful pressure sore from sitting in a wheelchair for eight hours a day at work. Doctors recommended bed rest to allow the pressure sore to heal.

So Allen took medical leave in May and September, taking her away from her classroom and her students. After exhausting most of her sick days to get better, Allen is back at school, grimacing through the pain, to do what she loves: teach.

“It’s so exhausting, but it’s my dream job," Allen says. "I have the best job trying to make a difference in the life of a kid.”

Allen has wanted to be a teacher since she was 7 years old. A voracious reader, Allen was pushed by her parents to go to college, earn a living and become independent.

Allen graduated early from Brigham Young University and earned her master’s degree in early education from UNLV. Twelve years ago, she moved to Las Vegas to begin teaching. Along the way, she married Erwin, a school custodian at Miller Middle School, and began raising a family.

Allen says what she’s done so far in her life is nothing special, but it’s the kind of independent life she hopes for each one of her special-needs students. Shoot for the moon and perhaps you’ll catch a few stars, Allen tells them.

“If I can affect a life here or there, then my life’s worthwhile,” Allen said. “I’ve been blessed so much in my life, it would be selfish not to give back.”

•••

Frustrated by her bed rest, Allen took it upon herself to do something.

To prevent more pressure sores, Allen needs a special wheelchair that elevates her to a standing position with a flip of a button.

The wheelchair Allen is looking to purchase would cost $25,000, however. And unlike her current wheelchair, which can be stowed away in her car, the new wheelchair would require outfitting Allen’s 18-year-old GMC van with special restraints, hand-controls and a ramp. Modifying the van could cost upwards of $10,000.

Even with insurance, Allen estimates she needs at least $20,000 to pay for the wheelchair and van. And that’s excluding the cost of the surgery to treat her pressure sore. Allen plans to wait until June for that.

Faced with thousands of dollars in potential new medical costs, Allen turned to Gofundme.com – a crowdfunding website – for help. In late September, Allen uploaded a biography and fundraising goals to the website and posted it on social media.

“I didn’t want to ask people for money – it goes against everything I was taught,” Allen said. “My parents didn’t raise me to live at home and live off of Social Security. I was expected to be independent. But I was desperate, so I put my pride aside and tried it.”

The response was overwhelming. Friends and family from around the world started donating money to her cause. Parents of former students chipped in. Strangers who were touched by Allen’s story started donating as well.

Over the next two weeks, Allen received 114 donations, from as little as $3 to as much as $1,000. In all, the donations totaled $8,055.

“It’s just amazing — a miracle,” Allen said, her eyes tearing up. “I feel really humbled because I don’t really feel like I deserve it.”

While the donations will help immensely, Allen says she still needs help. She hopes to get her special wheelchair by the end of the year.

“I’m just asking for help to do my job that I love to do and feel I’ve been called to do,” she said. "People have already done so much to help me and help me family, for me to just sit here and do nothing is the worst thing I can do.”

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