Editor’s note: The following article is reprinted with permission from the publisher of “Sioux Falls Woman” magazine
Keeping the Faith
Vicki Kerkvliet draws from her unwavering belief to live a life of faith, healing and joy.
by Margaret Pennock
Life has never been easy for Vicki Kerkvliet. At just three weeks old, her arm broke while her mother was giving her a bath. “At first my parents were falsely accused of child abuse,” she says. “But after further examination, they saw that I had a bluish tint in the whites of my eyes that was an indication of a bigger issue.”
She was eventually diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), more commonly known as brittle bone disease.
After this, life was never the same for the Kerkvliet family in Larchwood, Iowa. Exceptionally close with her parents and siblings, Vicki is the youngest of six children.
“My parents had to be so careful with me because my bones were so fragile,” Kerkvliet says. “My brothers and sisters would sit in a rocking chair and hold me. It was hard because they had to be so careful not to hurt me.”
Although both Vicki and her family had to make sacrifices to cope with her disease, she led a fairly normal, happy childhood. She went to the same school that her brothers and sisters attended and was treated just like any other kid.
“It’s really amazing looking back that people treated me like anybody else,” she says. “I went to a school where I was the only person in a wheelchair until I was in high school. My mom drove me into school every day until my friends could take me. My teachers made accommodations for me but didn’t make a big deal out of it.”
However, the one thing that wasn’t the same was that Vicki suffered through several painful broken bones until she reached adolescence. At the age of 5, she had rods inserted into her thigh bones to help keep them from breaking and re-breaking.
“I cried a lot and I knew immediately when I had a broken bone,” she says. “I broke my scapula, my ribs — you name it. I’ve broken 30 bones, most when I was little. It was nice because my doctor let me stay at home instead of keeping me at the hospital. A lot of times when I had a fracture I just camped out on the couch at home, which was nice because at least then I got to interact with my family and friends.”
Needing to be a “normal” kid and wanting to be involved in a group activity, Vicki chose to play the flute when she was 10.
“My family was very sports-oriented and of course that wasn’t something that I could do being in a wheelchair at that point, so my flute playing became my outlet to be involved with other kids my age,” Kerkvliet says. “I am a competitive person so it gave me something to strive for.”
Excelling in music, Vicki was awarded a music scholarship from Augustana College in Sioux Falls.
Although it was a difficult choice to leave home and strike out on her own, Vicki knew she wanted to attend college and spread her wings. Following high school graduation, she gathered her courage and moved to Sioux Falls to enroll at Augustana. A very spiritual woman, it was an excellent choice for her but a very lonely one at first.
“I had a lot of questions in my life at that time,” she says. “It was like, why me? I think a lot of people with disabilities do ask why this has happened to them. It was a big step to leave home and everything I knew and was comfortable with to go to college, and I felt pretty isolated the first semester. I did really depend on God at that point in my life.”
But she stuck with it and doesn’t regret it to this day. Vicki graduated with a degree in religion with a minor in psychology. “At Augustana you’re required to take religion courses and they really intrigued me. They were great classes, and the more I took, the deeper the interest I felt. I had no idea what I would do with it since I’m a Catholic so being a pastor wasn’t an option.”
Following graduation, Vicki found a use for her degree working for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls.
“I was at the Diocese for five years and I’m very glad I chose that route,” she says. “I learned a lot more about people with all types of disabilities, not just physical ones. I really learned that everybody has abilities, gifts and talents, no matter what disability they have. I learned a lot from my clients rather than the other way around. It was an amazing experience.”
Vicki also worked for rehabilitation services in Sioux Falls as a counselor aide for two and a half years and then moved forward to a position with Prairie Freedom Center for Independent Living (currently Independent Living Choices).
“I was the development director, so I was responsible for public relations, fundraising and grant writing,” Vicki says.
Moving on, Vicki next became a benefits specialist for the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative and Rehabilitation Services. Her role was to educate people regarding how their social security and disability benefits would be affected by their employment.
“Employment has been so important to me in my life, and it’s important that I have the opportunity to inspire others,” she says. “I tell people, ‘Yes, you can work full-time with a disability!’ I cannot imagine not working; I think I’d go crazy. I love the variety that I’ve been able to have because I really need to be challenged in my job. That’s always what’s prompted me to find something new.”
Currently, Vicki treasures working as the director of independent living services at Independent Living Choices. She supervises nine staff members and manages the independent living services program.
“We work with people with disabilities in 43 counties and I travel frequently to our branch offices,” Vicki says. “We have offices in Madison, Mitchell, Yankton, Huron, Watertown and Aberdeen. I like to get out of the office. I like to be out and about!”
In addition to becoming a very successful businesswoman, Vicki has also attained the title of Ms. Wheelchair South Dakota 1998. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, she cherishes the memories of participating and meeting other inspirational women.
“It was a great opportunity to speak for others with disabilities who may not be comfortable doing so,” she says. “I also met so many amazing women. It was an honor to be among them and to hear their stories about what they’ve overcome and what they have accomplished in spite of their disability.”
Today, Vicki is busy completing her bucket list. To date, she has traveled to all 50 states and is planning a trip to Ireland in the next few years. She is also committed to maintaining her personal fitness and following a healthy eating plan.
“Being a healthy person is very important to me,” Kerkvliet says. “Maintaining my weight helps me be more mobile and feel good. I’ve always enjoyed being in the water because it was a safe place for me because I didn’t have to worry about breaking a bone. It’s important that I keep my bones as strong and healthy as they can be, so I do a lot more weight-bearing exercises. I have lots of things I want to accomplish yet!”