Latinos in Action member setting an example and breaking stereotypes

Story and gallery by EMMA JOHNSON

Yuritzi Huerta Campos is an 18-year-old senior at Jordan High School. Campos is the first U.S. citizen in her family. Both of her parents were born and raised in Mexico. Her parents moved to Utah before her and her two sisters were born in hopes of giving them a better life with more opportunities.

Campos joined Latinos In Action (LIA) four years ago when she was s freshman at Jordan High School. According to the Latinos in Action national webpage, there are LIA groups established in eight states, in over 200 schools, with 8,000-plus total student members.

Campos’ two older sisters participated in LIA when they attended school. She saw how their student involvement with LIA changed their high school experience. Hispanic cultures dedicate great respect to their rich heritage. Yuritzi appreciated how LIA also allowed her sisters to express and honor their culture through a public group. She says joining LIA has made them all feel like they are a part of something bigger. “Being able to give out a part of ourselves and serve other is what I love,” Campos says.

“In school, you have a place you belong,” she says when talking about why she decided to join LIA when starting high school. Latinos In Action was created in 2001 in Provo, Utah, by Jose Enrique. According to the Latinos In Action webpage when Enrique was in high school, he recognized the lack of programs created for Latinx students to participate in.

After high school, Enrique attended Brigham Young University and earned a bachelor’s degree in Education and Spanish, a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership.

Enrique became an administrator himself and was again reminded of the lack of academic resources available to Latinx students. He felt Latinx youth were often disengaged at school and shunned for their cultural heritage. The disconnect was unacceptable in his eyes, so he created the Latinos In Action.

Matthew Bell, a foreign language teacher at Jordan High School, said in an email that the Latinos In Action program was first presented to Jordan High nearly 10 years ago by founder Jose Enriquez. “Through the presentation, we immediately saw this program as an opportunity to help Latino Heritage students become more involved in the school and in their community,” Bell says. “Another selling point was the strong emphasis the program placed on post-secondary study and achievement.”

Campos says she feels her LIA membership has gotten more impactful as the years have progressed. When LIA was first introduced to her school, she says it wasn’t widely known or understood. “We wanted to change that,” Campos says. Now, LIA hosts assemblies and plays a role in the Student Government program.

The Latinos In Action program emphasizes serving the community. Campos and her LIA classmates spend two days a week at a nearby special-needs school, Jordan Valley, where they help those with severe disabilities communicate through an assisted software called EagleEyes.

EagleEyes is a mouse replacement system for the computer that tracks eye movement and converts it into mouse movement. The system is primarily used to assist those who are profoundly disabled. Campos spends a few hours a week helping different students learn and communicate through the software.

She says her time spent using EagleEyes has changed her life. Debbie Inkley, Executive Director of OFOA says “The EagleEyes-LIA Program changes lives.” Inkely expresses the beauty of the two groups working together. She says it’s changing the volunteer’s lives through their service but giving the Jordan Valley students the peer experience of a lifetime.

LIA values have influenced all aspects of Campos’ life. “LIA setting self aside to help others grow, to build a stronger community.” She is planning on attending Utah Valley University for a year then she hopes to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The service opportunities through LIA has played into her decision to serve a mission and her decision to help people better their lives.

The Latinos In Action program was created to empower Latinx youth through their culture and prepare them for college and leadership opportunities. “We can be perceived as minority, going on a lot about drugs and criminals and all that stuff but we’re really not here to do that. We are here to show the best of ourselves,” Campos says.

LIA activity has shown Campos’ classmates what LIA is all about. She says many of her LIA peers were raised with very little. Most of their parents moved to the States to give their children a better life and a chance at an education. She says LIA helps her show her peers that you don’t have to come from much to break commonly believed stereotypes.

Campos uses her LIA membership to show everyone around her that your time and energy can be spent how you choose and that not all Hispanics fall under brutal stereotypes. She says, “We can show we aren’t that and that we can show love and give service.”

Photos courtesy of Opportunity Foundation of America.

Latinos In Action members provide aid to classmates with disabilities

Story by EMMA JOHNSON

Jordan High School Latinos in Action (LIA) members are changing the lives of their non-mobile, non-verbal classmates at Jordan Valley School for the disabled. According to the Latinos in Action national webpage, there are groups established in eight states, in over 200 schools, with 8,000-plus student members. LIA members at Jordan High assist their disabled classmates across campus using EagleEyes.

EagleEyes is a mouse replacement system for the computer that tracks eye movement and converts it into mouse movement. The system is primarily used to assist the profoundly disabled. This technology was developed at Boston College and through an exclusive licensing agreement The Opportunity Foundation of America (OFOA) owns the technology and now manufactures, trains and distributes the technology.

Matthew Bell, a foreign language teacher at Jordan High, says in phone and text interviews that the Latinos in Action program was presented to Jordan High 10 years ago by the founder, Jose Enriquez. Bell says through the presentation he immediately saw the program as an opportunity to help Latino heritage students become more involved in the school and in their community. “Another selling point was the strong emphasis the program placed on post-secondary study and achievement,” Bell adds.

There are 24 Jordan High School Latinos in Action volunteers who spend one hour two days a week volunteering at Jordan Valley School. Eighteen of the students facilitate either the EagleEyes or Camera Mouse technologies with nine Jordan Valley School students. LIA members have been volunteering in the classroom for five years.

EAGLEEYES2

Latinos In Action students assisting a Jordan Valley student with EagleEyes. Photo courtesy of Opportunity Foundation of America.

Debbie Inkley, executive director of OFOA, says she has witnessed many student volunteers bring small gifts to their disabled peers. She sees students go above and beyond their responsibilities every day. “Many Jordan High School students will call me if their Jordan Valley School peer is not at school to check and see if their peer is sick,” Inkley says. Both groups of students create bonds with one another. The love and equality between students is evident in their work and is demonstrated in their progression, Inkley explains.

LIA volunteers not only assist their fellow classmates in academic progress but also have given them the gift of friendship. “Jordan Valley School students are elated when they see their Jordan High School Latinos In Action volunteers. They love working with peers and having friendships,” Inkley says.

EagleEyes can be a very intense situation. A lot of patience and care is required of all volunteers assisting the disabled students. Matthew Bells says he has seen students’ experiences with working with EagleEyes benefit them in and outside the classroom. “I think the biggest lesson learned at EagleEyes for my students is that there is a person to be discovered in everyone they meet,” Bell explains.

EAGLEEYES

EagleEyes volunteers prepare the software for student use. Photo courtesy of Opportunity Foundation of America.

To become eligible for EagleEyes users usually have difficulty communicating or can’t communicate at all. EagleEyes gives them the opportunity to express themselves through words, games, and learning. LIA students are helping their fellow peers communicate in a way they never dreamed of.

LIA members have learned to understand skills bigger than they could have ever expected, Bell says. “Some other little lessons are that they have learned patience, the importance of avoiding multitasking and take a process one step at a time, and perhaps most important they have learned to put all electronics aside and really focus on the person and the task,” Bell says. The growth he has witnessed in LIA volunteers stretch beyond themselves and achieve goals the program was created to help achieve.

The program has helped students reach new perspectives in terms of how they see their parents’ sacrifices, how they see their community and how they see themselves in their future community. Bell says many of his LIA students will be first-generation college students and graduates. “They know very little about how to get there, how to pay for it, or what it takes to be successful in comparison to high school,” Bell says. They are willing to make the sacrifices and being a part of Latinos in Action helps them realize the importance of a successful future.

Camila Gallardo, a senior at Jordan High School, has been a member of LIA for four years. She says in a text interview that LIA has given her another group to call family. She says being a member has helped her to become more confident in herself and made her want to embrace her culture. “I’m so happy Latinos in Action has given me opportunities like volunteering with these kids because it has made me a better person overall and has made me learn so much that you just don’t learn in a classroom setting,” Gallardo says.

“I have had such an amazing time volunteering at Jordan Valley doing EagleEyes,” she says. “It is something that I always look forward to because it’s always just amazing to watch these kids smile when they interact with us.” LIA has created an opportunity for Gallardo to grow beyond herself. Participants of LIA focus on skills that will help them prepare for college and career readiness and leadership development skills. She feels her time spent volunteering with LIA and EagleEyes has not only helped her through high school but also will assist with her professional success.

Latinos In Action school and community involvement has taught students personal skills desired for future success and given Jordan Valley School classmates the opportunity to experience genuine peer support. “The EagleEyes Latinos In Action program changes lives,” OFOA Executive Director Debbie Inkley says. All who are involved with the program say it has been fulfilling and uplifting in every way.

Minorities brighten up the future of science and technology

Story and photo by SAYAKA KOCHI

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is a key field for innovations. As demand increases for researchers and engineers in Utah, the underrepresented minorities, especially those with roots in Latin America, are needed to be scientific innovators.

IMG_0475

Katherine Kireiev, STEM communication manager at the Utah STEM Action Center.

“It doesn’t matter what the color of skin is. STEM is helping to improve human lives, and maybe, the technologies are based on our abilities to keep up with them,” Katherine Kireiev said. She is an underrepresented first-generation American born to Russian parents. She works at the Utah STEM Action Center as a STEM communication manager, supporting Utah citizens including Latinxs to engage in sciences.

Latinx people are less likely to pursue higher education or their careers in the STEM fields, compared to other ethnic groups. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, Hispanics are significantly underrepresented in most STEM occupations; only 7 percent of all STEM workers in the U.S. are Hispanics, while 69 percent are Caucasians.

“The Latino culture of filial piety can be one of those things where they are expected to go into similar lines of work. Or maybe not given the right messaging to drive them toward college or science at home,” Kireiev said.

“Latinos are very family oriented and tend to work more in hands-on jobs rather than go and pursue higher education, because culturally, over generations, they don’t think that’s a pathway,” she said.

“What we do here in this agency is to try to make equity across all of the population,” Kireiev explained about what the center, located at 60 E. South Temple in Salt Lake City, is doing. The Utah STEM Action Center creates children’s “wow” and “why” moments by organizing STEM-related events, showing how science works around them.

“We try to equip students with opportunities that they wouldn’t dream of,” Kireiev said.

“With our very large Latino population in the state of Utah, we target public schools and charter schools. … We’re really trying to get teachers to recognize that [we need to] start them young and get them young and just show them that it can be really fun,” Kireiev said. For example, students are given a little toy that can be programmed to follow different color patterns. “It’s really cool and they say, ‘Oh, my gosh. I made it do that?’ Once students make these physical connections and see in actuality that hands-on piece, then it really lights them up,” she said. 

SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) is also an organization supporting college students in the minority groups to build up their community in the STEM fields.

“SACNAS offers a lot of career development, a lot of workshops to help with applying for grad schools, med schools,” said Reuben Ryan Cano in a phone interview. He was born and raised in Utah, and his parents are both from Mexico. He became the president of SACNAS University of Utah chapter while studying as a pre-med biology student at the University of Utah.

“There is a lot of networking that goes on. There is a chance to present their research, learning how to present, and also see other presentations, sharing science as well as sharing those professional skills,” Cano said. “SACNAS can engage minorities in STEM by building a community, providing support necessarily, and professionally encouraging skill development.”

The connection is vital when motivating underrepresented students to be exposed to scientific fields. Lace Padilla, the former vice president of SACNAS University of Utah chapter who currently works as a post-doctoral fellow at Northeastern University, has discovered the importance of connection through an unexpected meeting.

padilla_conference

Lace Padilla has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. Photo courtesy of Padilla.

Padilla was born to a Mexican-Native American mother and a Caucasian father. She grew up in a small mountain town in Colorado. Her first career was not in science but in an artistic field.

“Where I grew up, people didn’t become a scientist. I never knew any scientists, and I didn’t think someone who looked like me could be a scientist,” Padilla said. Her art career started when she got to know an artist in her hometown. Inspired by the artist who trained Padilla, she became a graphic designer.

“But I always loved science. I graduated first in my class, but for whatever reasons, I never met a college counselor. Just nobody encouraged me to pursue science. So I just didn’t think it was an option,” Padilla said.

After she came to Utah to complete her master’s degree in arts at the University of Utah, she happened to meet a woman who was studying visual perception.

“Visual perception is a really interesting field because it is a science of how our visual system understands the world around us. It was so cool because that was always what I wanted to study in arts,” Padilla explained. Thanks to this meeting, Padilla was encouraged to get into the science field, a decision that changed her life.

Padilla became a graduate research assistant in the visual perception and spatial cognition research lab under the professor’s mentorship and finished her doctoral program in cognitive neuroscience at the U. Since 2018, she has been working as a National Science Foundation (NSF) postdoctoral research fellow at Northeastern University in Boston.

“I wouldn’t have gotten to science if it wasn’t for just randomly meeting this woman who believed in me,” Padilla said.

“Sometimes minority groups get passed over for science because they don’t know someone that can show the way they should have,” Padilla said. “One of the biggest applying factors that makes a minoritized person successful in STEM is having a mentor. If you don’t have a mentor, it’s hard to find a path.”

The current STEM fields are not diversified enough. This inequity is resulting from a lack of real person-to-person connections, inspirations, and encouragements. Underrepresented people hold unlimited potential in science.

“Studying science changed my life,” Padilla said. “I’ve never imagined someone like me could be a scientist. Because I learned a possibility, it changed everything for me. I feel like I’ve been successful because I realized what a privilege it is to study science.”

 

 

High Uintahs Taxidermy brings memories back to life

Story, photos and slideshow by WILLIAM PHIFER III

Take a behind-the-scenes look at the process of taxidermy.

 

In the center of Coalville, Utah, lies a small 700-square-foot building filled with hides, horns, antlers and taxidermy forms.

Front door - High Uintahs Tax

The main entrance to High Uintahs Taxidermy in Coalville, Utah. Ironically, a sign directs visitors to a side door because the entry is crowded with life-size mounts.

High Uintahs Taxidermy, owned by Dean Schulte, 49, is located at 31 S. Main St. Specializing in big game taxidermy, Dean strives to recreate a lifelike appearance of the animals that people bring to him.

“I hope that when [people] look into the eye of my work … they can see a spark of character and soul,” Dean said. “That is the most important thing that we really try to work for here, with myself, and with the guys that work for me. I never stopped reinforcing that.”

Dean believes focusing on the detail of an animal’s eyes is what makes them look alive. “We are known for our eye work here. Our eye detail is the foundation,” Dean said. This process entails setting the glass eye into clay and tucking the hide into the clay. This prevents the hide from pulling away from the eye socket when it fully cures.

By doing this, Dean hopes that his work will serve as a commemoration to his clientele and their hunts, especially those of family-related outings. “They are looking at a snapshot of a lifelong memory,” Dean said.

While some of his clients focus on the trophy quality of the animals, Dean said his emphasis on the eyes “is going to make that memory that much more lifelike for them. … It’s the difference of having a sharp image of something and a dry poor piece of photography.”

Dean, a self-taught taxidermist, founded the business in 1993 so he could make a living and support his family, while doing work that he enjoyed. “Most importantly,” Dean said, “I am happy at what I do.”

However, Dean said, “There’s a struggle between the artist and the businessman. I’m an artist first.” He never intended to create a business that would grow and become a huge operation and he has purposefully prevented it. While he has employed as many as eight people at one time, Dean presently employs four people.

Including himself, Dean prefers his current five-man operation. “This is the limit for me, otherwise I’m going to become a manager. I will not be involved on the floor as a taxidermist if I was to add more personnel,” he said.

By running this type of operation Dean is still able to be involved in the work that he is passionate about.

Dean’s passion for taxidermy began in Montana when he was 10 years old and he paid a $1.99 monthly subscription for pamphlets made by the Northwestern School of Taxidermy. However, he only dabbled in it until he was 16. He strayed from it as adult life began to take precedence.

Dean moved to Utah when he was 18 to work in the oil fields with the intention of only working for six to eight months. However, he said the money was good.

On one calm, cold November morning Dean said he and his team of three guys were having trouble with an individual oil drill they were working on. It was the third day they had been working on this particular piece of machinery. Each night the well would build up pressure caused by a mixture of natural gas, oil and water, and his team would follow safety procedures to bleed-off the pressure.

However, the company he worked for at the time did not have an oil and gas separator, which would burn off the natural gas and dump the excess oil and water slurry into a tank.

Dean recalled the events of that morning:

Getting ready for the day, as the well was bleeding down, well what happened is within 5 minutes, all the sudden that well just opened up and it unleashed a huge tremendous amount of [gas]. I don’t know how many cubic feet of gas it dumped into the valley. By the time we could get over to the well and shut the valve, it had already saturated this valley. It was literally like fog, like a fog of natural gas. We were shutting down all the equipment we had started up, basically all your ignition sources, trying to shut them down. Well on the edge of the location there was a trailer, probably like a 6 by 10, that we had lockers in there and we changed our clothes and we had a heater in there. Well that trailer was the last thing we got to and that heater, the piolet lite, it ignited the location. I was probably 10 feet from the door.”

Dean said it felt “like standing by a jet intake on an airplane, just a roar. And obviously all the oxygen is being consumed in the air. Everything just went red.”

Dean suffered third-degree burns on 40 percent of his body and spent six weeks in the hospital. After that he was in and out of the hospital for about five years, while he had multiple operations done on his hands and face. (The other members of his team also suffered burns. One person sustained third-degree burns over 55 percent of his body. Another suffered third-degree burns over 25 percent of his body. The fourth man was in the trailer at the time of the flare and didn’t get burned until he tried to help the other men.)

“It was a swift kick in my ass. I went back to school,” Dean said. “I wasn’t going to let it beat me.”

Doctors told him he would probably never work with his hands again, but Dean set out to prove them wrong. He went back to school to be a machinist and in between surgeries, earned a degree in robotics and automated systems. After that he also spent three years studying electrical engineering. Then at the age of 25, a friend reintroduced him to taxidermy.

“I just kind of realized, second time around, maybe this was my forte, this is what I really want to do. This is what I’m supposed to be doing [and] I just very aggressively pursued it,” Dean said.

In 1993, he started doing taxidermy work out of his garage. Later he moved to a 30-foot by 30-foot building but quickly realized he need more space. He moved his shop into its current location.

Over the years, Dean has raised nine children, all of whom have worked in the shop with him at some point in time.

Stephen Schulte

Stephen Schulte stands in front of an award-winning lesser kudu.

His oldest son, Stephen Dean Schulte, 27, is the only one who still works at the shop. He began working for his dad nine years ago, when he was in high school. Father and son both hope he will, one day, take over the family-owned business.

Stephen considers himself lucky to have been able to work for his dad and gain experience in the business.

“There’s guys that go to school for this and they pay like $10, $15,000,” Stephen said. “The best way to do this is, I guess like a tattoo artist, is to apprentice under somebody. I’ve been able to apprentice under him [and] I like doing this. That’s my ultimate goal is to run the business.”

Stephen feels confident about his ability to run the shop with his the help of his wife, who does a lot of the office work. “I pretty much run all the North American sector. I do all the managing [of] the North American stuff, which we do about 200 North American pieces a year.”

While North American animals such as deer, elk, moose, mountain goat, Dall sheep, bear and many others are his area of responsibility, Stephen also works on animals not native to the United States. He said he has done taxidermy on a lot of African animals including antelope species such as springbuck, bushbuck, impala, nyala, and kudu. Stephen is excited to be planning his first trip to Africa in May 2016, and he can’t wait to see all the animals running around.

“Kudu are my favorite. I think they’re pretty,” Stephen said. “They look awesome and I’m excited to go get mine, because I’m going to do something cool with it.” About the size of an elk, greater kudu are an antelope species with large curled horns and hides that are a mixture of grey, brown, black and white.

Stephen's award winning lesser kudu

Stephen Schulte did the taxidermy work on this lesser kudu that he entered in the Best of the West Taxidermy Championship. He won second place in the Masters Division with this free-standing piece.

“I’ve mounted a ton of them, but every time I do one I get my reference pictures out and obviously the internet has everything you need,” Stephen said. “You can pull up a million different pictures.”

Like the kudu, there are a lot of animals that Stephen hasn’t had the opportunity to see in real life. He said pictures are the key to good anatomically correct taxidermy.

“That’s the important thing,” Stephen said. “Reference pictures, reference pictures and more reference pictures. My dad will tell you the same thing.”

Stephen added, “A lot of taxidermists don’t [use reference pictures]. What happens is they do so many [animals], but then they start to stylize them to the way they think looks good.” In the long run they end up changing the anatomy of the animal.

This use of reference pictures is something that Dean teaches to all his employees, not just his son.

Kelli Dixon, who is also a hair dresser, does most of the finish work on animals at High Uintahs Taxidermy.

“They’ve taught me a lot here. I mean, I’ve never ran an airbrush before,” Dixon said, “and they taught me to sew.” Dean also taught Dixon the importance of using reference pictures. “Dean has some catalogs down there,” Dixon said. “[He has] books with pictures and stuff and then Google, amazing Google!”

Dixon, who still works out of her home as a stylist, said her new job has given her a different perspective on the art of taxidermy. “I had no idea what taxidermy took. I had no clue that it was all this art,” she said.

She really likes working as a taxidermist, perhaps more than being a stylist, and enjoys the outcome of her job. “You get the animal and you get to fix it up and make them all pretty,” Dixon said.

Dixon plans on being at High Uintahs Taxidermy for a long time because she finds her work very fulfilling. “I like when you tell people what you do, and they look at you like you’re an artist,” she said.

Having found a love for taxidermy, Dixon now appreciates taxidermy a lot more. She said, “Now I look at everything and see. I look at live animals and [I] notice every detail … It’s funny the detail that you start noticing after doing this kind of work.”

It is exactly that kind attention to detail that Dean and his son, Stephen, share. Their craftsmanship is what attracts people to High Uintahs Taxidermy. They want Dean and his team to create a piece of artwork out of the hide, horns and antlers — preserving their experience and bringing the memories back to life.

The life and success of Kirsten Morrise

Story and slideshow by NATALIE CHRISTENSEN

Meet Kirsten Morrise, her friends and family through photos.
Pierre Robin Syndrome is not a very well-known condition that is found in between one in 8,000 to one in 30,000 children born.

Pierre Robin Syndrome is a condition that comes in three stages, namely a cleft pallet, micrognathia (meaning a smaller jaw) and glossoptosis, an obstruction by the tongue from breathing.

Kirsten Morrise, a resident of Salt Lake City in the Sugar House area, has been dealing with Pierre Robin syndrome from the day she was born.

With her cheery personality and positive attitude, you wouldn’t believe the struggles this 20-year-old has gone through. She has been in and out of hospitals her whole life and  has undergone 40 surgeries. She has struggled with depression, been bullied through school and has overcome some learning struggles.

At a very young age she had a tracheotomy placed on her throat. Not only was this a burden for young Kirsten, but also for her mother Lisa who was taking care of two other children with medical needs.

“Kirsten was very sick and we were basically running an ICU and Timothy (her brother) was bouncing off the walls, and Michael (her brother) needed breathing treatments,” her mother Lisa said. “She was in the hospital 16 times her first year.”

Lisa said it was by the grace of God that she made it through that first year. Even with her two older boys needing help, having a child with a tracheotomy meant she needed to be at Kirsten’s bedside at all times.

When Kirsten had her tracheotomy removed at the age of 1, Lisa was able to return to work while neighbors watched Kirsten. Soon after however, problems started rising again.

“There were days when she couldn’t walk,” Lisa said. “And it was very strange … and things got a lot worse.”

Because of the lack of oxygen to her brain, Kirsten was having seizures which were getting worse and worse. Even with treatment, her seizures weren’t getting any better.

“‘Kirsten is sick get over it,’ was basically the attitude of a lot of professionals had that I talked to,” Lisa said. “But she kept getting sicker and sicker, and it got to the point where she couldn’t sit down on a couch without falling off because she was so out of it.”

As many times as Lisa tried to take Kirsten back to the hospital, they weren’t getting any help.

“And it’s like you’re running into a brick wall,” Lisa said. “It’s the scariest thing in the world to have your child be sick and have people not pay attention to you.”

Finally Kirsten was able to get the treatment but needed more surgeries.

She missed a lot of school because of the surgeries, and her social life wasn’t going very well either. A lot of Kirsten’s friends didn’t know how to treat her because of her surgeries. They saw her as being delicate rather than a normal kid.

“A lot of people don’t know what to say to me, because I’ve been through so much,” Kirsten said. “But I say they’re human. Do I really want them to be fully aware of what I’m experiencing?”

When Kirsten turned 6, she started skiing in Park City with The National Ability Center, a program that helps young kids recognize their strengths and helps build their self-esteem. The National Ability Center allowed Kirsten to participate in downhill skiing, and she had her own instructors to help her.

“My mom got me into skiing to help my upper trunk strength,” Kirsten said. “But as I got older and got better at it, it became not a pursuit (of) something to prove — I’m not delicate — but another activity I could add to my collection of talents I had.”

Kirsten went on in 2009 to win the gold medal in downhill skiing in the Special Olympics in advanced skiing.

Kirsten enjoyed skiing much more than physical therapy, it was more enjoyable and fun, and she could be outdoors. A lot of children with disabilities prefer to have their physical therapy this way, and Kirsten always looks back on the skiing experience with a lot of pride.

In 2005 Kirsten had screws put in her jaw called jaw distractors. The screws were visible on the outside of Kirsten’s face. When the screws were turned it forced her jaw forward so the jaw bone behind it could grow.

When asked if it hurt, she explained, “Yeah, you try getting the bone in your face being gradually moved forward.”

But, she added, “knowing what the end result is supposed to be makes it easier to endure.”

When she was 12, she attended LDS Brighton Girls camp. She enjoyed that summer so much she went back a second time and then finally went back as a helper in the kitchen in 2009 and then worked as the Craft Shack in 2010.

Kirsten loved it so much because the people there didn’t treat her like she was a disabled person. “They treated me like I was a human being,” she said. “There I had a blank slate, no one knew about my past … they let me do everything that everybody else did.”

Even having to wear an oxygen tank on her back as she went hiking her first year, she had fun with the girls telling them she was a cyborg.

If you ask anyone who worked with Kirsten at Brighton Camp a huge grin will come across their face.

Michelle Theurer was one of Kirsten’s good friends who worked at Brighton Camp with her. “It was great she always has something to say,” Theurer said. “So there’s never a quiet moment with her and she’s a really hard worker. Even with her limitations she’ll do whatever she can do.”

Theurer said Kirsten was always positive and was involved. She made things so much more fun because she saw them in a completely different way. “We would have time where we’d just hang out and it would be so fun to tease because she just dishes it right back at you, and she’s really ticklish.”

When Kirsten entered high school at Highland High, she was bullied by students taking her scooter and teasing her, calling her retarded and stupid.

“I have cerebral palsy and I have mood disorders, and I have hypotonia which means low muscle tone,” Kirsten said. “Those things have kind of caused with the bullying because of my posture and people look at me funny and also not being very athletic influenced the bullying.”

While attending high school, Kirsten was also going to college because of how much her surgeries held her back.

Kirsten attended Utah State University, because neither Brigham Young University nor the University of Utah sounded appealing.

“I made a plan to get to college,” Kirsten said. “And even though I got to college late, I had a plan I would get all of my high school work done by a certain time, and I would be able to function well enough to go to college.”

She picked social work as a major because she wanted to help others. “I feel like I have a capacity of empathy and I feel like I can give so much,” Kristen said.

Theurer also attended Utah State with Kirsten.

“Even though she may have challenges,” Theurer said. “She is always quick to realize that others have challenges too. She doesn’t seek for pity, but she does seek to serve others.”

Kirsten is looking toward the surgery that will fix it all. The procedure is called an End to End Anastomosis. Doctors will take out the part of the trachea that is scarred and then sew the ends of her trachea together. She went in early 2013 to Cincinnati to have the surgery done, but her throat wasn’t ready for it. So, on Dec. 10, 2013, she had surgery to advance her upper and lower jaws and tongue.

“Even though I have all these issues, I have a plan for how I’m going to do things and make sure I can do them,” Kirsten said. “I can take care of myself, I can do school, I can go on hikes, just not on big ones, and I’m a gold medalist in downhill skiing. Anything I put my mind to most of the time, I can do.”

Using genetics to debunk racism

Story and photos by ALYSHA NEMESCHY

Humans have been dealing with racism for hundreds of years, specifically those who are considered black-skinned by society. Africans have been faced with hardships, trials, slavery and even rejection of being human throughout history.

However, recent studies from geneticists may have the key to ending racism. Geneticists have proven that DNA studies show that all modern-day humans originated in Africa.

According to World•ology, as humans migrated north, “the less melanin they needed in order to gain protection from the risk of skin cancer. …Therefore, over several the course of several thousand years, somewhat lower levels of melanin were produced in the skin/hair of Asiatic humans, giving them a light brown pigmentation. The lightening effect was even more dramatic for humans in sun-poor Europe.”

Thus, prior to migration from Africa that took place roughly 60,000 years ago, the entire human race was black. Differences in skin color have only resulted due to sunlight exposure of ancient ancestors over the course of thousands of years. That completely negates every argument that humans have given for why racism is justified.

Demographic results of Eli Martinez, showing that his DNA comes from many different regions of the world, including Africa.

Demographic results of Eli Martinez, showing that his DNA comes from many different regions of the world, including Africa.

One Salt Lake resident, Eli Martinez, was fascinated by this information and chose to put it to the test by having his own DNA tested.

Martinez was born in Mexico and later moved to Utah. He considered himself 100 percent Mexican growing up and he, like other minorities, faced many difficulties with racism throughout his childhood and into his adult life.

Martinez was passionate about education and learning. He later went on to receive a bachelor of science degree in Spanish. However, while obtaining this degree he was exposed to many different issues regarding his own race that led him to be an extreme advocate for ending racism.

Melissa Sanford, a friend of Martinez, said, “Although a large chunk of society believes that racism is a thing of the past, many people are still faced with segregation and I have seen it firsthand growing up and going to school with Eli.”

After learning about the research being done to prove that all humans are of the same race, and that all people contain the same DNA lineage from an African woman from over 100,000 years ago, he thought that racism could soon be something of the past.

Martinez’ wife, Allison Evans, was interested in her husband’s passion with the African lineage and purchased a DNA test for his birthday. “He was constantly rebutting racist remarks online, at work and with his friends saying that we are all black and our racist ways are and always have been unjustified because, race is only something we as humans have created,” Evans said.

The DNA test results soon returned and his belief of being a full-blooded Mexican was halted. His DNA results showed that he was 40 percent East Asian and Native American. Nearly 30 percent of his background was European and, as expected, he also carried Sub-Saharan African genes as well. Five percent of his DNA showed African descent. He was amazed.

DNA results show those tested what percentage of their lineage comes from where.

DNA results show those tested what percentage of their lineage comes from where.

Martinez is one of many who are working toward ending racism by proving that we are all of the same human race. And ironically enough, we all come from the same race that has faced some of the most difficult hardships and brutalities because of racism.

With evidence being more available to the public, Martinez along with many others hope that racial differences will finally be a thing of the past, and acceptance toward one human race will be settled, officially making us a colorblind world.

Paleoanthropologist Richard Leaky said in a USA Today story, “ If you get to the stage where you can persuade people on the evidence, that it’s solid, that we are all African, that color is superficial, that stages of development of culture are all interactive, then I think we have a chance of a world that will respond better to global challenges.”

Thelina Smith, Miss Black Utah USA, strives for science education

Story and photo by LORIEN HARKER

On the Miss Black USA pageant website there is a statement that reads, “It’s time to redefine what it means to be a courageous, compassionate [and] CONFIDENT black woman today. We’ve got obstacles to overcome and stereotypes to smash. Sound like your kind of revolution? Join the movement.”

Thelina Smith has got some smashing of her own to do.

524502_4026434416872_1145373459_n

Smith competing for the title of Miss Pioneer Valley in August 2012.

Smith is the current reigning Miss Black Utah USA. She also is a junior at the University of Utah who is studying biomedical engineering with an emphasis in biomaterials and leadership studies.

Smith is extremely busy with duties of the crown and sash, such as being an advocate for heart health while promoting her own platform. However, she makes sure to be involved with her studies. Smith started the first chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers at the U, reactivated the U’s Society of Women Engineers and is a biomedical engineering ambassador for the College of Engineering.

As a requirement for her title, Smith also promotes a platform, or an issue she feels needs to be addressed within the community. Smith says her platform, “Engineering the Leaders of Tomorrow, Because Tomorrow Matters Today,” is meant to “motivate minorities and underrepresented students to engage in STEM education.”

Smith says her platform has three goals. First, to reach out to the community, specifically women, through educating them on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. Second is to “continue to charter diverse student organizations throughout Utah that serve to recruit and retain minority and underrepresented students in STEM fields.” And third, she wants to “establish a council” to mentor the youth she hopes to recruit into math and science education.

“I feel that this pageant allows me to take my efforts to the next level,” Smith says in an email interview. “I want to challenge young ladies to think about what it is to be beautiful and smart and to capture the attention of young men to let them know they can have a future within STEM education.”

Smith has also been working on partnering with the National Society of Black Engineers, The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, The American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the Society of Women Engineers, of which she has been an active participant. Smith wants to partner with these societies to form a council called STEM-Diversity Industry Advisory Council.  This council would include “community leaders and local STEM company representatives that will [oversee] the support of these student chapters,” Smith says.

Despite her full schedule, Smith is making time to run for Miss Black USA in Washington, D.C., in August 2013.

Although there have been women of color to win larger national and international pageants, Smith doesn’t feel women of color are being represented to their full potential within these programs.

 “I wouldn’t consider myself ‘marginalized’ in pageantry but rather ‘underrepresented.’ There have been women of color to capture the crown as Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Universe, [but] this is still relatively a small number in comparison to the number of years that these organizations have existed,” Smith says.

Lana Thompkins, the public relations spokeswoman for Miss Black USA, says in an email interview that the Miss Black USA is necessary because women of color do not feel beautiful with today’s standards of beauty.

 “Self-esteem is the core of a woman’s belief in herself. Miss Black USA sets our own standards of beauty,” Thompkins says.

African-American women have been faced with many stereotypes, Thompkins says, and the purpose of the Miss Black USA pageant is to disprove these stereotypes.

“While 80% of Miss Black USA contestants are graduates or professionals and represent a new generation, we are often negatively typecast, demeaned, and portrayed in the media and in the workplace as ‘broken,’ ‘unattractive,’ ‘alone,’ ‘hard to work with,”’ and even ‘violent,’” Thompkins says.

Raychellene Talbot, the wardrobe coordinator for Miss Utah under the Miss America Organization, feels that Miss Utah has a “melting pot of pageant girls” despite the fact that there has yet to be an African-American Miss Utah.

“We have so many different contestants at the local and state level. I know Miss Utah Outstanding Teen 2011 had 6 different nationalities,” Talbot says.

The Miss Black USA pageant was founded in 1986 by Karen Arrington. The scholarship program boasts a two-year tuition scholarship to Miles College, a historically black college in Fairfield, Ala.  The scholarship also awards a fully furnished apartment close to campus. If contestants such as Smith win and choose not to attend Miles College, they do not receive the housing benefits.

Women who have competed for the title of Miss Black USA have gone on to win titles within the Miss USA organization. Chenoa Greene, Miss Black New Jersey 2007, went on to become Miss New Jersey USA in 2008.

Thelina Smith says, “The Miss Black USA pageant is a showcase of women who otherwise may have been overlooked.”