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Alessa advocates for change

Schools

She may be small in stature, but Alessa Dumbrill is a giant when it comes to advocating for change and breaking down barriers for people with special needs.

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So inspiring were her achievements during secondary school that she was awarded the 2020 Nazareth Prize in her final year at the Flinders Park college.

Proud parents Brett and Tania admitted to shedding a few tears when Alessa, who has muscular dystrophy, received the prestigious award from Nazareth director, Ann Bliss, and laughed that they were grateful they had resisted the temptation to leave the ceremony early to avoid the crowds at the end!

At the presentation Nazareth’s assistant principal and head of Student Development, Christian Martino, commented on Alessa’s willingness to use her studies to lead change throughout the wider community, describing the 18-year-old student as “polite, compassionate, hard-working and goal-driven”.

“These personal qualities, along with highly effective study habits and organisational skills, have led to an exceptional level of academic achievement throughout her schooling,” Mr Martino said.

He revealed how Alessa was the “first to show care for others”, living out the words of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop to ‘be humble, be patient, be charitable’.

“While achieving excellence personally, she has always kept the personal growth of her peers at heart,” he said, adding that a defining example of this was Alessa’s contribution to the Year 11 retreat.

“The message to the cohort was to embrace diversity, break down barriers and use our God-given strengths to celebrate our differences, a goal that this student lives out daily.”

Reflecting on the retreat, Alessa told The Southern Cross that when she shared her story there had been a “lot of tears” shed by her peers and teachers present.

“I just talked about my life up until then, my surgeries, illness and how I got to where I was,” Alessa explained. “It changed a lot of people’s perceptions of me.”

Throughout her schooling Alessa has tried to advocate for change. In Year 10 she undertook a survey of shops at Glenelg to highlight the need for better access for people in wheelchairs.

“When I was younger I went to Jetty Road one time and I couldn’t get into a few of the shops so that’s where the idea came from. I just wanted to make the shop owners more aware and have it more wheelchair accessible,” she said.

For her research project in Year 11 she looked into ‘adaptive clothing’, which allows for slight adjustments to make it easier for carers or those with disabilities to take clothing on and off.

Diagnosed with Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy when she was two and a half years old, Alessa has been using a wheelchair since the age of four and also relies on a ventilator to help her breathe when she is speaking. There have been several major surgeries and prolonged hospital stays over the years, resulting in disruptions to her studies. The arrival of COVID in 2020 made her Year 12 experience even more challenging.

“It was absolutely not the year I was expecting,” she said.

With her immunocompromised condition, Tania and Brett quickly made the decision that Alessa and twin sisters Teagan and Carli would study at home for a couple of months.

Alessa became adept at contacting her scribes via Zoom and Microsoft Teams and Nazareth provided great support. When she finally returned the school ensured Alessa and her friends could sit together in an isolated location during lunchtimes.

Despite the obstacles, her academic prowess shone through and Alessa received an ATAR of 89.4 and will study a Bachelor of Arts (Advanced) degree at the University of Adelaide this year.

Tania said her daughter deserved all the accolades she received.

“She’s very mature and a lot smarter than I am,” she said.

“When she was little it was very hard for us and her orthopedic specialist would say that while Alessa would never be a runner she would be very smart and that is because she will be sitting there taking everything in while the other kids run around and miss things. And that’s true, she’s like a sponge and she absorbs everything.”

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