By Joseph Robertia
Lifelong Alaskan Maggie Winston, 21, is as busy as most working, college-student moms — that is to say, very.
She recently graduated with an associate’s degree from Kenai Peninsula College, where she is continuing work toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology, as well as working as a tutor in the school’s leaning center.
When not at college, she is usually dropping off, picking up or volunteering at her twin boys’ — Dylan and Daemon — elementary school. She also takes them to various places around town, such as the park to play, or to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank to learn about volunteerism and other important life lessons related to giving and sharing.
Winston also is active in various organizations, such as serving on the board of directors for Frontier Community Services and the Independent Living Center. And when she’s not involved in any one these activities, she enjoys art and recently had her first book of illustrations published.
There is one exception, though, and it’s a major one. All her activities and responsibilities — her mom duties, household upkeep, work schedule, pickups, drop-offs, heres and theres — are done from a wheelchair, as Winston has been quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, since 2005.
“Everything changed drastically after that,” she said, referring to that day when her spinal cord swelled from an autoimmune disorder called transverse myelitis. Within two hours of the first sharp pains in her back she lost the ability to use her arms and legs. She spent months in hospitals in Anchorage and Washington before returning home to start learning a new way to live.
“Independence has always been a really important thing for me,” she said, her tattoos and fireweed-pink hair being an external testament to that free spirit. “So doing nothing was not an option, but not being able to use my arms, especially as a mom, was very difficult. You have to learn to do everything differently. It took a long time, but now my friends tell me they forget I’m paralyzed.”
Winston’s strength could be overlooked by those who take their physical mobility for granted. Hers is an emotional strength — the will to be who she had always been, doing the things she wants to do, even if in an altered way. For example, the book she illustrated — “Slugs Forever: Tales of an Alaskan Backyard” — took around 60 hours to complete.
“It was really freakin’ hard, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “I had to use the pencil and paintbrush in my mouth. It took two to three hours per illustration and there were 11 illustrations in the book, and then the cover alone took 30 hours.”
As Winston continues to work toward further independence, an opportunity has presented itself. But in order to do more for herself, she needs the support of others.
“Currently I live in a group home with my sons, but last year — through the RurAL CAP program — I got a home built in Kenai. It should be done around Octoberish. But leaving the group home, I will lose the benefits of being provided with a vehicle 24 hours a day,” she said.
Winston has other options through the Central Area Rural Transit System, but with a mom’s schedule plagued to change unexpectedly, she fears that the call-ahead ride-schedule service, with only a handful of accessible vans available, might not be enough to keep up with her busy lifestyle while also accommodating her wheelchair needs.
“I need something for going multiple places, not just point A to B like some of these services require you to do. I need something for going to the school and the store, for taking family trips outside the Kenai-Soldotna area — such as Homer for the day or Fairbanks for the weekend. My life isn’t just busy. I’m also a spontaneous person, and sometimes I just need to get out of the house, right then.”
Wanting to ensure Winston can be mobile whenever she needs to be, family and friends have been working toward a fundraiser to get Winston her own wheels.
“She has enough limitations in her life, she doesn’t need transportation to be another,” said Brandi Kerley, who met Winston several years ago while attending KPC.
Kerley said that the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation has agreed to cover the cost of the hydraulics and other modifications that must be made to a vehicle so that Winston, in her 300-plus-pound wheelchair, can get in and out and drive the vehicle.
“But that’s if Maggie has her own vehicle,” Kerley added.
Kerley has set out to raise the funds through various sources in order to purchase a vehicle for Winston. They researched together what Winston’s needs are — something large, reliable, safe for kids, and preferably with good gas mileage. They believe a goal of raising $10,000 will be a good down payment toward something, such as a large van, that will meet these prerequisites.
“With the move, she’s taking a huge step forward in her independence, so we don’t want her to have to take three steps backward due to transportation. This is something I believe we can do for her,” Kerley said.
Utilizing Facebook and Fundrazr (a social media fundraising application), they’ve begun receiving donations through their “Maggie’s Wheels!!” pages. As of Tuesday, 19 donors have given $1,010, or about 10 percent of the overall goal.
Kerley also is planning a bingo-style “Blingo for a Cause” fundraiser at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Quality Inn in Kenai, including a Lia Sophia jewelry party with all the proceeds going to Winston’s vehicle fund. Donations of $30 are requested to attend the event, and prize donations for the winners are still being sought. For more information or to make a donation, contact Kerley at 252-9264 or visit www.fundrazr.com/campaigns/0WzO4.