Alicia Jenkins is a Student Co-ordinator at St Catherine’s Catholic College, Singleton, while Kirralee is a Year 2 student at Corpus Christi Primary, Waratah. They met at a picnic at Blackbutt held by Short Statured People of Australia (SSPA) and quickly developed a bond, with Alicia offering support for Kirralee as she made her way through school. Kirralee’s parents, Kathryn and Kristian, are delighted that their daughter has a mentor in Alicia.
Alicia’s story encapsulates “Equality of opportunity”, the motto of the association of SSPA of which she is national secretary. Alicia’s parents had no reason to suspect she would be born with dwarfism. “There was no indication that anything was wrong until I was born, and then apparently everyone came in to work out what was going on.” Kirralee’s parents too had no idea that their daughter would be one of only nineteen known cases of the particular type of dwarfism with which she was born. Kathryn explains, “Kirralee’s dwarfism occurred spontaneously – she’s rewriting the genetic books at the moment!”
Speaking to Alicia and Kirralee is a delight. They have an easy closeness and a self-deprecating sense of humour, but in speaking and then writing, I was very conscious of not using terminology which could be heard as demeaning or stereotyping – or simply lazy. Alicia explained that, “Dwarfism is a collective term. Science is discovering more all the time and there are hundreds of syndromes that cause short stature.” One of the functions of the SSPA is to provide information for people with conditions of dwarfism, their families and other interested members of the community, so Alicia was more than happy to speak to the Corpus Christi community late last year. Kathryn has also addressed the staff so they can assist Kirralee as effectively as possible.
Alicia has always lived in the Hunter and attended San Clemente High School and St Francis Xavier’s College. She admits, “I had a pretty rough time through high school”, and while she embarked on a science degree at the University of Newcastle, “by second year I was struggling a little bit with self esteem and self-confidence. My younger brother was heavily involved in swimming and he challenged me to be involved. Swimming was as natural to me as it was for him and I quickly made it to the national team for swimmers with a disability. My studies took second place because I became almost a fulltime athlete, training up to ten times a week.”
Alicia competed in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and in Sydney in 2000 and then retired from competitive swimming at the age of 28. Her swimming career led to opportunities to speak in schools, especially at the invitation of her former teachers, and she found this both enjoyable and satisfying. Alicia had undertaken the study of science with a view to research but she changed direction and chose a career teaching science instead. “I felt there was something I could bring into the schools that would help others,” she said.
One might think that the secondary science classroom would be a challenge for a teacher significantly shorter than her students, but Alicia insists, “My height is an absolute advantage, because it usually gives me a couple of weeks with new students to create the boundaries because they’re not quite sure how to take me, so I use that to my advantage!”
While Alicia shares her story, Kirralee listens carefully. While she has earlier delighted in telling me, amid peals of laughter, that one of her books is called “Miss Chatterbox”, she is a thinker as well as a talker. She has, at age 7, something Alicia didn’t have in her early years. “I didn’t really have anyone to look up to....it would have been nice to have somebody a bit older to talk to, to say ‘this happened to me today’, and know that they know.” Alicia recalls, “It took almost a year to get a part-time checkout job at 16.” She has a god-daughter with dwarfism and describes herself as “part of her family”.
Kirralee is remarkably self-possessed for a seven year-old, and she is more than capable of telling her own story. She tells me that she likes snow skiing (thanks to Dad Kristian’s tuition), gardening with Sr Jenny at school, reading and colouring in, and retrieving the balls “for the big kids” when they roll under a seat, “because I’m short”. She describes Corpus Christi as “a really fun school and there are nice teachers there”.
It’s important to Kirralee and her parents that she participates, as far as possible, in all the opportunities that school offers, although a heart condition imposes some limitations.
When asked what she most wants to pass on to Kirralee, Alicia says simply, “Anything is possible.” Alicia lives by that maxim, and I believe this irrepressible chatterbox is following in her footsteps.
Before I leave, Kirralee tells me, quite solemnly, “It’s really good to be short and it’s really good to be me.”
Kristian Walton is a joiner and he’s currently working on a specially designed desk for Kirralee. He’s interested in producing custom furniture for others of short stature. To learn more, please contact the editor.
Dwarfism is a medical condition not fully understood by the public at large. In fact dwarfs or people of short stature are often made fun of and are sometimes portrayed in an unflattering way in the entertainment world. One result has been stereotyping of dwarfs in modern movies or other performance roles. However, if environmental barriers are minimised, people born with a condition of dwarfism have the ability to accomplish as much as an average size person, whether in the real world or the world of entertainment.
The Short Statured People of Australia (SSPA) is the national support organisation for people with conditions of dwarfism, their families and other interested members of the community. The SSPA is made up of volunteers who aim to educate their members and the community, provide peer and parent support, participate in programs that benefit the dwarfism community and promote the achievements of people with dwarfism.
Source: Short Statured People of Australia, www.sspa.org.au.