Amy Chally, a social worker with cerebral palsy, and her service dog Portland have been working with children at Geneva Middle School North. (Denise Crosby / The Beacon-News)
By Denise Crosby
Amy Chally just wants to be normal. Still.
"Normal," as we all know, is a subjective word. In her case, it means being a productive member of society — going to a job she enjoys, working hard, helping others. Yes, even having that husband, kids and white picket fence, although the latter is optional.
Of course, Chally, born with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, knows her body is not like most people's.
With muscles that are constantly tight and contracted, she struggles to move or control the movements in her arms and legs. In addition to using a wheelchair, she deals with a speech impediment and body twitches because — as she describes it — those muscles "don't always do what I want them to do."
Which is why she's had to strive that much harder for normalcy all her life.
"Amy was always independent, always determined," said her mother, Vicki, who's justifiably proud of the fact her daughter was toilet-trained at age 2, despite her disability.
"But that's just the way we decided we were going to raise her because I did not want to be changing her diapers the rest of my life."
This candidness and easy humor — not to mention strong will — in both Chally women is probably another reason Amy Chally, who will turn 35 in June, has managed to attain so many of a young woman's so-called normal goals.
We first wrote about Chally — who lives with her parents on the far West Side of Aurora — in May 1999 when she was a 17-year-old Plano High School student attending her first prom.
Vicki Chally and her husband, Darrell, fought for years with the school district to include their daughter, who was the first student at Plano to be mainstreamed back when the battle for inclusion was still raging, The Beacon-News reported.
For Amy Chally, it was a godsend, as the school in Joliet she attended prior to being mainstreamed meant a 55-minute bus ride each way and a classroom where only a handful of students could even talk.
And Chally is verbal, to say the least. She's also bright. The brain bleed that likely led to her disability at birth or soon after did not affect her IQ. Not only was she inducted into the National Honor Society as a Plano senior, she graduated summa cum laude from Aurora University, eventually earning a master's degree in social work in 2006.
In 1999, Elliott Lenoff, director of the Kendall County Special Education Cooperative, described Chally as the most successful inclusion student he could remember in his 20 years with the county.
But excelling in the workforce has presented its share of frustrations. Chally, who even in high school dreamed of working with disabled children, has been laid off from jobs because of budget cuts, including with, ironically enough, the Kendall County Special Education Cooperative in 2010, and AIM Center for Independent Living in June 2015.
Chally also believes she gets passed over for positions because the job description requires a driver's license for home visits and, in many schools, training in crisis prevention intervention, which she is unable to obtain due to limited use of her limbs.
While there are vehicles available with adaptive equipment, it's her startle reflex and eye tracking that keep her from obtaining a driver's license, she noted.
Chally also gets frustrated because, despite progress made in laws that mandate equality for people with disabilities, she still runs into prejudices. Even adults, she said, "see the chair instead of the person."
"Just because I can't walk doesn't mean I can't see or talk," she added.
Since April, Chally has been substituting for the social worker on maternity leave at Geneva Middle School North, but that job will come to an end this week. And that's when the tough-as-nails Chally becomes wrought with emotion.
"I love working with these kids so much, and it's such a great staff," she said, tears welling in her large, expressive eyes. "I'm so thankful to be there, and it just breaks my heart I'm going to be leaving soon."
Ashley Weltler, dean of students at the middle school, says the feeling is mutual
"Amy jumped right in and did not skip a beat," she said of the temporary position. "The way she connected with students is phenomenal. She has such insight, and she's bound and determined to make a difference."
You can't help kids, Chally insisted, when you are sitting at home.
That's why, when she was out of work from June until she began working at Geneva Middle School North in April, she wrote a book, "Making Independence Happen, One Paw At a Time," about her disability and her relationship with her beloved service dog Yazzen, who died in 2014 from cancer. Her current dog, Portland, Weltler told me, is "a big asset" in working with the kids.
The book, an easy read at only 36 pages and available on Amazon.com, is filled with the candor, humor and determination that has always defined Chally's refusal to let anything stand in the way of her goals.
"God has me in this position for a reason," she said of her disability. "I'm supposed to help people. … So OK, God, let me get on with doing just that."
Because she's been in the shoes of children with disabilities, Chally is convinced she can show them by example that it is indeed possible to find success and in doing so to attain normalcy.
All her life, said Vicki Chally, her daughter has "had to work harder to prove herself."
"Am I really good enough?" Amy Chally said. "That is the question I'm always asking."
For Weltler, who has gotten to know that can-do spirit well these last weeks of the school year, a four-word answer is all that is needed.
"Look at her now," she said.
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