June 28, 2016


Part 4: Breanna Sprenger, the extraordinary ‘ordinary girl’

AVON —The light buzz of Breanna Sprenger’s electric wheelchair is barely audible as she zips along the linoleum floor at Avon Heritage North Elementary School one Tuesday morning.

The wheels glide over the words Heritage Pride painted onto the vestibule floor — the same spot scuffed by the footsteps of other kids as they head to class.

The school bustles with nearly 700 students — a mix of fifth- and sixth-graders — and Breanna, 10, is happy just to be one of them.
“I wake up in the morning at like 5:30 a.m. and say ‘Yes, it’s time for school,’ ” she says.

More photos below.

This morning, her mother fixed her hair with a wide purple headband with Avon written in white, bold letters. When Breanna whips her head from side-to-side, tufts of blond hair — hair she can’t brush away because the bones in her arm are fused at the elbow — fly into her mouth. Headbands are the best defense against a mouth full of hair.

“I like school. I would go in the summer if I could. I like to learn,” Breanna says.

Breanna has a pink backpack crammed full of books, folders and papers strapped across the back of the chair and an even brighter pink lunch bag dangling from one side. Debbie Campo, her aide, walks beside her, making sure she doesn’t outpace the chair with her steps.

“The hardest part of my day is not helping her,” Campo says. “I am here to get the textbooks and things out of her book bag and to help her when I think she can’t do it. So much stuff is going on her laptop that we do less and less with the books. I’m working my way out of a job, and I’m OK with that because that is the plan.”

Campo raised three children of her own — all rough-and-tumble boys who loved to play sports. Her youngest is a freshman in high school and thinking of a future that includes college. She wasn’t thinking of going back to an elementary school.

But when Carrie asked the church secretary several years ago for a recommendation about who could be her little girl’s school aide, Campo’s name came up. Carrie wanted someone special to deal with her daughter who was born with no legs and one arm.

“I was working part time, but basically I was a stay-at-home mom. My sons are all getting ready to leave the house, so I was looking for work,” she said. “I didn’t know it was going to be such a perfect fit. I’ve never had a daughter.

“But Breanna likes to tell me God gave me a girl later,” Campo says. “She is all girly and I love it.”

It is just before 10 a.m., and there are a few other students walking in the halls, talking amongst themselves but not many because Breanna likes to excuse herself from class just before the bell to beat the crowd.

“Hey, Bre,” a student shouts out as he heads in the opposite direction, his arms overloaded with the same items Breanna cannot carry. Breanna doesn’t stop but gives him back a hello and a smile.

It is an innocent exchange between two classmates, something that takes place every day. But it also signifies a sentiment so many who love Breanna want the world to know: She is just a regular kid.

She’s a good student who makes straight A’s, loves language arts and plays in the school band — banging a drum larger than her entire body.

“When I look at her, I don’t see the handicap,” Campo says. “I see a vibrant person who just loves life. She gets out of bed every day to live life to the fullest because she loves life. I think she would have the same personality with a whole body because it is who she is.

“We think we are special because she treats us the way she does, but really she treats everyone that way. We are not special — she is,” Campo says.
Breanna is also a girl who loves Justin Bieber, wants to shop at the teenage hot spot Aeropostle and has a best friend whom she has known since preschool.

“Oh, that is a long story,” Breanna says of her friend, Daria. “In preschool, I ran over her foot and she called me a meanie. Then she said ‘Do you want to be my friend?’ So we have been friends ever since. She likes Justin Bieber, too.”

Breanna is heading from math class — not her favorite, she’s quick to point out — to gym.

Bowling is on the agenda, and, as is the course for every day at Avon Heritage, Breanna joins in with a little help. The school therapist brings in a metal ramp for Breanna to use.

“All the kids help her and she just jumps in there and does it,” says her gym teacher.

Campo places a bowling ball on the rack – albeit a ball a lot lighter than a typical one.

“Bre, you’re up,” she says. “Part of bowling is paying attention.”

Breanna zips up to the stand, uses her arm to push the ball down the ramp and then gives the metal bar a little shake for momentum. The ball veers to the right, missing all of the pins.

Breanna giggles, moves in her seat and spins the wheelchair in circles. She is dancing again, this time to the music playing loudly in the gym. A tall, slender girl is with her. She is dancing and jumping to the music. The two are momentarily in their own little world.

“I love this song,” Breanna says.

Campo walks near her and smiles.

“You love every song,” she replies.

Born to cheer

The night before, Carrie Sprenger declared that she is sure her daughter was born to be a cheerleader.

“You know when you see cheerleaders mouthing the words to songs and smiling — that’s her,” she says as she points to Breanna.

Breanna is dressed in a navy blue and silver outfit and is inside Tumbles and Cheers, a privately owned cheerleading academy that specializes in competition cheerleading. Her squad is the Superstars, a group made up of girls with disabilities.

“It’s such a fun team to work with,” Tumbles and Cheers owner Heather Zidek says as she watches the group run through their routine. “They want to be cheerleaders just like every other girl so we try to accommodate every girl regardless of their disability.”

As Zidek talks, standing in the back of the large room with bright lights, high ceilings and a booming sound system, a teenage girl with a high ponytail runs to Breanna and removes the Velcro straps holding her in place in her wheelchair. She and another girl — each member of the Superstars is teamed with buddies to help them through the routine — grab Breanna and hoist her high into the air.

Breanna extends her left arm and beams with excitement. It’s the finishing move of a routine that starts with Breanna using a joystick to turn her chair to mimic the pivots and jumps of the other cheerleaders on the squad.

Breanna has just one word for the new heights cheerleading lets her experience: Awesome.

“It’s fun,” she says. “I like being with all my friends, and we go to competitions. Who wouldn’t like that?”

Back in the gym at school the next day, cheerleading was forgotten and bowling and dancing make gym class breeze by quickly. Breanna doesn’t seem to be bothered by her bowling score — a mere 15.

“It’s OK. Let’s go,” she says with a smile.

Breanna leaves the room after Campo grabs a bag she will need for her next stop — physical therapy. While not as intense as the therapy she receives twice a week at a Cleveland Clinic facility, it is still vital to Breanna’s march toward independence.

Planning a future

Carrie Sprenger said she still can’t believe more than a decade has passed since she sat on an examination table in a strange doctor’s office and heard “The baby doesn’t have any legs.’’ At that time, doctors didn’t expect Breanna to live long after birth, but fate intervened, and now the Sprengers are focused on preparing Breanna for her future.

“I expect the same as for any of my children,” said Carrie, a teacher at Puritas Community Middle School in Cleveland. Carrie and John Sprenger, a sales rep with Beacon Gasket & Seals Company in Cleveland have two other children, Paighten, 7, and Chase, 5. “I expect Bre to attend college, get married, have children and stay strong in her faith. We are working hard every week toward the goal of her living on her own.

“She is a dreamer. Bre has big plans for herself. Dad might want to get a dorm next to hers in college, but I won’t let him. She is fully capable of living on her own, but if she chooses to stay home, then she can. Again, it is her life.”

There are no naysayers in Breanna’s life telling her what she can’t do. Instead, there are a host of others — many of whom the Sprengers have met through the International Children’s Amputee Network — who are living examples of what Breanna’s future can be.

Kayla, a 15-year-old girl in Seattle who is physically Breanna’s twin, is a gold-medal Paralympic swimmer. There is Dr. Erin Andrews, a congenital triple amputee, who lives in Texas. She is a psychologist and mother. And there is Tina, who was born with just a right arm. She has a degree in marine biology.

“As Breanna has gotten older, we have let her be a major decision maker in deciding what works for her and does not work for her. Although we know many adults and kids that are like Breanna, they are still all individuals,” Carrie says. “We have always had the outlook that Breanna should be involved in every decision since this is her life.

“Of course, we definitely guide her decisions,’’ Carrie says. “But Breanna is very intelligent and knows what she wants out of life. She is an old soul.”

Help out

Follow Breanna Sprenger on Facebook.com/teambreanna. Updates are posted regularly about her goals of becoming a U.S. Paralympic swimmer.

Team Breanna is looking for company sponsorship and/or company and individual donations.

Donations would need to be made out to “Team Breanna” and can be sent to Team Breanna, P.O. Box 422, Avon, OH 44011.

Donations are also accepted at any Huntington Bank. Checks need to be written out to “Team Breanna.”

Team Breanna is holding a fundraiser noon to 8 p.m. Feb. 8 at Coleone’s Pizza, 2424 Ridgeland Drive, Avon. Mention “Team Breanna” and she gets 25 percent of the sales that day.

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Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.

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About Lisa Roberson

Lisa Roberson has been with the Chronicle since 2006, and covers Elyria city government and public education. She can be reached at 329-7121 or LRoberson@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter.