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Manhattanville Grad, Disabilities Advocate Honored for Volunteer Work

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Manhattanville College 2019 graduate Mikela Stephenson was honored last month by the school for her extensive volunteer efforts.

While independence-craving teenagers frequently strive for individuality and setting themselves apart from the crowd when they arrive at college, Mikela Stephenson aspired to be – and be treated – just like everybody else when she began her studies at Manhattanville College.

Living with severe cerebral palsy, as Stephenson does, might make that proposition sound easier said than done. But the California native, who lives in Rye Brook, remained undaunted.

“I have a twin sister who doesn’t have a disability, and I always wanted to do everything she was doing,” Stephenson explained. “My parents found ways to take me skiing, to do adaptive ballet, adaptive horseback riding and swimming. I had a three-wheel bike and traveled everywhere with my family. As far as I’m concerned, there is almost nothing I can’t do.”

Imbued with that can-do spirit and determined mindset, Stephenson forged quite a path for herself in college. In addition to a full-plate plate of studies as a communications major, the 2019 Manhattanville graduate took on extensive volunteer work through the college’s Clark Scholars volunteer service program.

“I wanted to do it to explore and see how I could use my background to help (others),” Stephenson said. “I chose to be part of the Ladies’ Room, which is a program designed to empower young girls from shelters, to give them hope and strength to pursue their goals. I also co-founded MVAC, the school accessibility club, to make our school more accessible (for students with disabilities).”

Nearly four years after she graduated, Stephenson returned to Manhattanville in February to be honored for her volunteer efforts, receiving the U.S. President’s Volunteer Service Award.

“Mikela is an inspiration to us all,’’ said Craig Donnelly, director of the Sister Mary T. Clark Center for Religion and Social Justice at Manhattanville College. “As a Clark Scholar, she exemplified Manhattanville’s deep commitment to service. She gave of herself in ways that encouraged others to give back. She is now taking those lessons she learned as a Clark Scholar to the next level in her work advocating for people with disabilities. We are very proud of her.’’

Stephenson’s volunteer work didn’t stop when she took off her cap and gown on commencement day.

Mikela Stephenson with her service dog Alaska.

“I currently volunteer for Canine Companion for Independence (CCI), which is a nonprofit organization that provides service dogs and skilled companion dogs to people with disabilities and veterans with PTSD completely free of charge,” Stephenson said. “I’m currently a leadership team member for CCI’s Hudson Valley chapter. I organize and participate in events and often speak on their behalf since I personally have a service dog named Alaska, who is always by my side.”

Additionally, Stephenson volunteers with Runways of Dreams, an organization that promotes adaptive fashion, represented by Gamut Management. She has also been part of university panels sharing her story to inspire and educate others about disability and inclusion.

“I work with them to explore adaptive fashion to share with major brands who are becoming partners with Runway of Dreams,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson’s volunteer work during and after college helped her to hone her career interests; she aspires to leverage her communications education and volunteer experience to forge a career as a professional disabilities advocate and motivational speaker. To that end, she produced an inspirational video, “The Sky has No Limits,” chronicling her journey, which can be seen on her YouTube page,

“I contemplated becoming a lawyer but then decided to concentrate my efforts on becoming an advocate for people with disabilities,” Stephenson said. “I grew up watching my mother advocate for me and struggle to get accommodations and to find ways for me to do things that other kids could do.”

Not surprisingly, Stephenson has set her sights high.

“My goal is to normalize disability. For me, the biggest challenge is reaching people without disabilities,” Stephenson said. “To make them interested in participating and caring. It’s hard for people to identify with me. I don’t want to inspire only a community of disabled individuals; I would like to reach a much broader audience and change the way people think about disability and diversity.”

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