COLUMBIA, Mo. – No one expected Kaitlyn Hassler to live when she was born weighing 11 ounces.
Now she is preparing for college, thanks in part to a spring break program for middle school students.
University of Missouri Extension Human Environmental Sciences research assistant Rebecca Mott says the second annual Camp Ca-Pow (College Access-Planning Our Way) gave students a first look at college life.
Kaitlyn was one of 18 area students to take tours of the state’s land-grant universities, a technical college and a private college during the weeklong program. Mott says the program targets first-generation college students from diverse, often high-risk backgrounds.
A diverse group of undergraduate and graduate interns, half of whom are first-generation college students themselves, worked with students throughout the week.
Before and after tours, they explored their “sparks” or passions, expectations and responsibilities, Mott says. They learned about financial aid, balancing work and study time, dormitory life, and more.
All live in Columbia, but few had visited the MU or Columbia College campuses before. Kaitlyn was no exception, although she sometimes sits in on night classes at Moberly Area Community College’s Columbia campus with her mother, a single working mom. During the camp, she also visited her grandmother’s alma mater, Lincoln University in Jefferson City, for the first time.
Kaitlyn and her mother are not strangers to overcoming adversity and beating the odds.
When her mother, Melissa Robison, was pregnant with Kaitlyn, she developed a severe complication of pre-eclampsia called HELLP syndrome. It affects the blood and liver enzymes, and forces premature birth.
Only one in four preterm infants born at 24 weeks of gestation live long enough to leave the hospital. Those who survive usually suffer long-term health problems.
Kaitlyn was born with her eyes fused shut and spent the first four months of her life in Columbia and St. Louis hospitals. When she was 8 weeks old and weighed a pound, doctors performed two laser eye surgeries to prevent blindness. Her mother couldn’t hold her until she was a month old because her skin was so fragile.
As Kaitlyn slowly gained weight, her mother lost her job because her employer wouldn’t hold the position for her during her daughter’s extended hospital stay.
Survival, on many levels, seemed unlikely.
Despite the odds, her mother also has survived and thrived.
She works at a day care center and is pursuing a nursing degree. “Me being in college shows her how important I think it is,” Kaitlyn’s mother says. “And it made me continue putting in a lot of effort because I definitely can’t quit or drop out with her watching.”
MU Extension’s Camp Ca-Pow reiterated that belief to Kaitlyn. “I’ve told many people how great I think the program is,” her mother says, noting that she was especially proud of Kaitlyn’s public speaking ability and the PowerPoint program presented to other campers.
Still under 5 feet, Kaitlyn is shorter than most of her fellow sixth-grade students at Oakland Middle School. Until recently she received growth hormone shots. She has had speech, occupational and physical therapy over many years. Her mother found ways to help her keep pace with her classmates.
As soon as Kaitlyn could crawl, her mother enrolled her in gymnastics classes and visited the public library regularly with her. Although Kaitlyn’s eyesight is limited, she adapts by sitting in the front of the classroom and enlarges the type size on her tablet to read. She likes reading, singing in choir, playing the viola, foreign language and Justin Bieber—not in that order.
Her sense of determination is matched only by her independence.
“I like trying out new things,” she says. “When I try something out, I don’t give up until I get it. I try to do everything on my own. I don’t want special privileges.”
She earns mostly As and Bs in school, and hopes that college is in her future. She says Camp Ca-Pow helped her learn about different types of colleges, scholarships, financial aid, degrees and careers. The camp created a road map to fulfilling her dream.
She knows the path to college may be hard, but it doesn’t deter her. “I don’t give up,” she says.
For more information, go to www.MUfamilyimpact.org.
Camp Ca-Pow is a collaborative effort of the MU Extension 4-H, the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences’ Family Impact Center and the MU College of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.