Cambridge-Isanti High School senior Victoria Koukol has been to the operating room more than 25 times because of her spina bifida, but she hasn’t let that stop her from living the best teen life possible.
She recently entered a contest through the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association in hopes of winning a customized handicap-accessible vehicle. The first stage of the competition is based on votes. She is one of close to 1,000 applicants, and has about 4,500 votes. She wants to win the vehicle to gain independence and mobility to go to school and eventually to work.
“Right now, I travel in the family van,” Koukol said. “It is 14 years old. If it breaks down, I have no way to go anywhere.”
The busy senior has accomplished a lot in her 18 years. This is the first year she’s on the track team, competing in shot put and discus. She’s been a horseback rider for five years, and this is the seventh year she’s been on the Special Olympics swimming team. The oldest of four, she’s also a Girl Scout, quilter, drawer, clarinet player and on the adaptive bowling team.
Her best moment this year, as a senior, was performing her first solo on the clarinet, she said. And, just like any other teen her age, she’s looking forward to prom.
Koukol challenges the definition of “normal.” For her, she does what she needs to get around and do the things she likes to do. That means pursuing all of her interests, including becoming a nurse one day.
“We’ve never told Victoria ‘no’; we just figure out how to make it work for her,” said Koukol’s mother, Andrea Banas-Koukol.
And they’ve made it work. Koukol wants to be either a gastrointestinal or developmental disable nurse. She’ll be going to the local community college next fall.
“Just try to do new things,” Koukol tells others with disabilities. “Don’t give up.”
It’s helped that she’s had such huge support from her family and friends.
It hasn’t always been easy for her. But Koukol has become an ambassador and role model for others.
Her mother was on the committee to get a ramp on the school playground when Koukol was in fifth grade.
“That’s huge,” Banas-Koukol exclaimed. “Somebody can go up a ramp and down a slide. We’re accessible. Vicky was part of that beginning. She’s not the only one in a wheelchair.”
The high school also installed accessible bathroom stalls in the second-floor women’s restroom. Though the family wasn’t involved in the action, the high school plans on having handicap-accessible bleachers in the football fields. Koukol currently can’t sit with her band mates or her family during games. But she’ll be able to sit with her family and watch her brother play football next year.
There’s still a long way to go for Cambridge, though. Koukol has been able to shed light on issues that one might not notice without knowing her.
“So many people take so many things for granted, like walking through the snow when your school bus comes,” Koukol’s father Trent said. “If there’s not a path cleared for (Victoria), it’s very difficult for her to get there.”
Some of the buildings in town don’t have enough space either, but that’s changing as people get to know Koukol.
She still has a long way to go in the competition, but she’s hopeful to get the votes she needs.
The National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association will be giving away four cars, sponsored by Toyota, Chrysler and Mobility Ventures. The top 10 percent from this first round will be judged by industry professionals, who will score them based on a scale of criteria.
Mobility cars aren’t cheap. The average vehicle can range from $45,000 to $65,000, said Cheryl Parker, the senior account manager at Evok for the association. The vehicles will be customized to each individual winner.
That would mean the world to Koukol, who currently has her learner’s permit, which was more expensive than a regular learner’s permit. She wants people to see her as the person and not the disease, and winning the car would be one more step in that direction.
“My name is Victoria, not spina bifida,” Koukol said.
Voting ends May 9. Vote for Koukol at http://tinyurl.com/vkoukol.