Kaney O'Neill, transforming lives - her own and others

Kaney O'Neill
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Photo courtesy of the Department of Veteran Affairs
All her life Kaney O'Neill seemed destined to explore. An avid swimmer, at age 19 she enlisted in the Navy with the hope of becoming a search and rescue diver, a world traveler — and eventually, a college graduate. "I was raised to be strong and independent," she says. "I thought I was never going to come back home."

Yet all of O'Neill's plans for the future changed dramatically just two years later when Hurricane Floyd struck the eastern seaboard in 1999. O'Neill was stationed in Virginia, and when she went out on a balcony to take a closer look at the oncoming storm, a ferocious gust of wind carried her over the edge of the railing.

O'Neill immediately knew that her existence would be forever altered. The fall to the ground below left her paralyzed from the chest down. "I felt like I was plucked out of my life with no closure," she says.
Today Kaney, 26, a senior learning and organizational change major, has blazed a new path for herself, but her personal transformation did not come easily. Following her release from rehab at a Chicago-area veterans' hospital, O'Neill went to live with her mother in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. There she felt isolated and restless from the confinement and dependency that resulted from her paralysis. "[It was] a real loss of identity," she says. "I had to re-create myself."

O'Neill's mother suggested she start by taking a class at Oakton Community College. O'Neill excelled academically, and her confidence grew.

"I recognized in myself a love for knowledge, and I wanted to give that to kids - how a world opens up to you when you learn," she says. With the help of her friend Jim Zangrilli, she began traveling to local preschools and elementary schools to speak to children about disabilities, an activity she continues to this day.

By 2003 O'Neill had earned her associate's degree and was named to the All-Illinois Academic Team. She also authored Dream and Reach, a colorful paperback in which a wheelchair-bound teacher cheerfully corrects youngsters' misconceptions about what disabled people can achieve.

The book was inspired by the time a boy in one of the classes where O'Neill was speaking doubted whether a woman in a wheelchair could become a teacher. Instead of taking offense, O'Neill found the child's candor refreshing. "There's something about the innocence of kids," she says. "They just ask you straight up."

In O'Neill's case, the desire for greater achievement led her to Northwestern. In the fall 0f 2003 O'Neill enrolled in SESP.

In addition to taking a full course load, O'Neill serves as a peer mentor to other young adults in wheelchairs and competes annually at the Veterans Wheelchair Games, where she has medalled in a number of events. She is currently working on two more books, and for her honors thesis, she hopes to follow several wheelchair-bound students as they are mainstreamed from an all-disabled school to other Chicago Public Schools. "It's a case study of the socialization process," she explains. "I wish I could spend years on it."

Unlike the heroine of Dream and Reach, O'Neill may not end up in the classroom. "I want to do something bigger," she says. She hopes to apply concepts learned in SESP, which she credits with teaching her the value of independent thinking, to systemic education reform, particularly as it relates to inner-city children. "I want to open doors for them, and education can do that,"" she says. "They can find a haven in school."

Indeed, if anyone is fit to demonstrate how education can transform lives, it's O'Neill. As she predicted, she has remade herself, and in the wake of personal tragedy has made aiding others her life's mission. "After all of the help I received in my life, it's so good just to give back," she says. "It's real happiness."
By Jen Aronoff