Student fights for equality across all platforms
Kayla Bolnick is not only an advocate for herself, but for others who also use a wheelchair.
This year, the Wilsonville High School senior, who was born with spina bifida — a defect that occurs when the neural tube does not close all the way and prevents the backbone, which protects the spinal cord, from forming and closing properly — brought attention to the lack of wheelchair accessibility at the school's football stadium.
In early October, Bolnick was able to watch her first football game in the student section of the grandstands.
Last month, the West Linn-Wilsonville School District's District Operations Center staff received an email regarding student access issues at the WHS football stadium. Though the stadium is ADA compliant — meaning the stadium meets the Americans with Disabilities Act standards for accessible design — Bolnick lacked the same experience as her peers. During football games, she'd have to sit near parents, community members and the concession stand since that was the only wheelchair accessible space.
Bolnick, an athlete herself, is also on the school's track and cross country team. So during team meetings, they would sit in the bleachers while Bolnick remained on the track. All was fine, until it rained, and Bolnick had no cover.
When Jeff Chambers, maintenance supervisor, and the rest of the district operations staff heard about the issue Bolnick raised, they wanted to act fast. With the football game being the next day, operations staff spent the entire day constructing a platform in the student section for Bolnick.
"I was shocked," Bolnick said. "Since freshman year I was wanting it, but over the years I was like, 'It is what it is' and when they said we were going to have this meeting, I'm like, 'OK, it might happen.' ... I did not expect that one, and plus how fast it was — I totally thought it would be the next football game."
This wasn't the first task Bolnick has urged the WL-WV School District to complete. Her advocacy for wheelchair accessibility and equity at the schools started when she attended Boeckman Creek Primary. A new playground was built but Bolnick couldn't play on it.
"I was upset — typical kid — and my mom was like, 'That's not gonna happen,'" said Bolnick, adding that she just wanted to play on the playground like a "normal" kid.
Since then, Bolnick and her mother encouraged the district to install push button entryways at the schools she's attended and in order to participate in sports, she advocated for a larger changing room in the WHS locker room to fit Bolnick's competition bike for cross country.
"Kayla helped us see things differently — all of the obstacles of what was in the way of her and other students who could be in the same situation," said Dennis Burke, assistant principal and athletic director at WHS.
Bolnick supports these changes to help future students who are in a similar situation.
"I went back (to Boeckman Creek) my sophomore year and I worked with a student with the same disability and she's like, 'I used everything you've done in elementary school,'" Bolnick said. "That's why I'm doing this. I like seeing that the younger crowd is liking it and using my ideas."
Bolnick hopes the platform at the high school will benefit future students as well, giving them a traditional high school football experience and increasing their visibility during the game.
"We noticed every other kid out there can stand (in the student section); they can look; they can see the game," Chambers said. "Games get exciting, so how can we make it so she can be part of the excitement and still see the game? And I think we accomplished that."
Operations staff removed a section of bleachers — eliminating about 12 seats — and the carpenters built a big platform. While the railing is currently wooden, Chambers said it's temporary. To increase visibility, operations staff ordered a cable railing to be installed. The platform will also be painted to better match the student section.
"To get her watching a football game and get her the experience she's never had at WHS, it was an amazing thing to be a part of," Chambers said. "It was neat to see the kids, the teaching staff, all of operations come together to make this happen. Kayla was the one getting the new amazing seating, but every kid benefited from it — the experience of having her able to enjoy the game and participate in the student section and being part of the game in that way."
Chambers said operations staff usually works behind the scenes and that it was impactful to see their work directly affect a student.
"We come in through the backdoor, we take care of a heat situation, we take care of a broken pipe, we take care of things people don't really notice," Chambers said regarding the role of operations staff. "It was an awesome opportunity for our department to get out there and provide something to students, to give an experience to students that they haven't had in the past and create an experience that is equitable for this student, making a better experience."
"(Kayla's) been a great asset for our school, our community," Burke added.