Overcoming all obstacles: Thunderbolts' Henderson thrives in the face of challenges
Amanda Henderson's life hasn't been easy. But it's the hardships that have made her stronger.
Henderson was born an orphan with cerebral palsy in Moscow, Russia, in 1997. When her parents Dee and Ken Henderson adopted her, at the age of 22 months, she couldn't walk or talk. She's undergone two major reconstructive surgeries, numerous treatments and has endured physical therapy nearly every day since the age of 2.
Yet, despite the struggles, Amanda Henderson has flourished.
On the field, she's a leader for the South Washington County Thunderbolts softball and soccer teams. Off the field, she's an "A" student, an advocate for valuable programs and all-around sweet girl.
"She is resilient, tenacious and passionate," Thunderbolts head coach John Culbertson said. "That goes for her schoolwork, Special Olympics, the Thunderbolts, her friends, you name it. I think she wants to prove she can overcome. She definitely knows what she wants and will work her butt off to get it."
Her list of accomplishments isn't a short one.
A junior at East Ridge High School, Amanda is currently a co-captain of the South Washington County Thunderbolts adapted soccer team. She's also been a captain of the Thundberbolts softball team, where she's a two-time All-Conference player and has earned team MVP and All-State Tournament honors.
Last winter, she not only won a gold and two silvers in the Special Olympics as a swimmer, she also volunteers for the organization on the Youth Activation Committee and helped raise $1,000 for the program by organizing a Polar Bear Plunge fundraiser. She also advocates for Spread the Word to Stop the Word - a national campaign that encourages people to pledge to stop using the word "retard."
She has 10 varsity letters, was a National Honor Society member as a freshman and is an East Ridge Ambassador. Amanda is not only enrolled in entirely regular-curriculum courses at East Ridge, she also takes Advanced Placement classes and holds a 3.84 grade point average.
In two years she hopes to go to college in order to study Graphic Communication. She also currently has her driver's permit and will soon obtain her license to drive.
However, what stands out even more than the accolades and accomplishments, is Amanda Henderson's bright spirit and happy demeanor. She has a peaceful energy and her positivity is contagious.
"She's just very friendly," Thunderbolts assistant coach Lindsay Bolin said. "All the kids can go up to her and talk about anything. She's very open. Even when she is having a bad day, she never shows it. She is always smiling."
Cerebral palsy (CP) causes physical disability in development, mainly in the realm of body movement. Other conditions can include seizures, epilepsy, speech and language or other communication disorders, along with eating problems, sensory impairments, mental retardation and learning and behavioral disorders, among other issues.
Since birth, Amanda has been effected on her right side with CP. It's believed when she was born, blood vessels burst effecting her development - some cognitive, but mostly physical.
"When we got to the orphanage in Russia, the doctor asked us if we knew about her legs," Dee Henderson said. "That was the first we had heard of it. We knew that she would need glasses. That wasn't a big issue. But, the doctor said she probably had something like Cerebral palsy."
Though shocked to learn of her disability, Dee and Ken Henderson didn't waver and brought baby Amanda back to Minnesota, where she's lived ever since.
"Even before we had a chance to meet Amanda, we fell in love with her when we saw her on a videotape," Dee Henderson said. "I knew from the moment I saw her - her eyes and her smile - she was the only child I wanted to adopt."
Learning to function physically has been a daily struggle for the Amanda. Throughout her life, amid the numerous surgeries, casts and procedures, the Hendersons literally had to teach Amanda how to crawl and walk and train her to be ambidextrous with both her feet and her hands.
"For the most part, with a lot of physical therapy and macaroni and cheese and French fries, she's a happy, healthy young lady," Dee Henderson said. "Most people don't even know she has Cerebral palsy."
Though she didn't want to try it at first, Amanda has played softball for the Thunderbolts since seventh grade and soccer since eighth grade.
"I think it helps me stay in shape and not be a couch potato," Amanda said. "It helps me with my Cerebral palsy, because it keeps me practicing with my right leg. I've seen improvement with myself from last year. I'm actually even using my right leg more than my left now."
This fall, Amanda's teammates elected her as one of two co-captains of the Thunderbolts soccer team. She said she wasn't expecting it "at all."
"The other players sometimes come to me for advice," Amanda said. "Since I am one of the better players, I guess, I know what to do and can help them to improve. That gives me a sense of accomplishment that I can actually help out."
Amanda said she likes both softball and soccer for different reasons. She said softball is more mental and soccer is more physical.
"I think the most important thing about adapted sports is that it's given her the confidence to believe that she can compete in sports, that she can be a leader and she can participate in something she may not have thought she could," Dee Henderson said. "So often these kids have struggles in life that not everyone else has. To see the joy this brings them, when they wouldn't necessarily have that is just wonderful."
The Minnesota Adapted Athletics Association first formed in 1984. Its mission is to "provide youth with disabilities the same opportunity as other students to enjoy the benefits of a quality high school sports program." In 1992 the MAAA was accepted into the Minnesota State High School League. Minnesota is the only state in the country with a high school sports league for kids with disabilities.
"The state of Minnesota deserves a lot of credit, because a lot of states don't have these kinds of programs," Ken Henderson said. "For a lot of these kids, it's not all about winning, it's about competing. They like to win, don't get me wrong, but those kids are having fun win or lose. Amanda enjoys being successful at it and being with these kids. There's a lot of camaraderie between these kids. There's a community and a lot of support."
Culbertson said he witnessed a progression in Amanda before last year.
"When she took over the pitching job in softball, we kind of saw a blossoming and a growth in terms of physical ability, confidence and the other kids looking up to her," he said. "She's one of those kids you love to coach, because she will look you in the eye, listen to you and go out and do it.
"I don't have kids, but if I did, I'd love to have a kid like that."