July 10, 2009

Saying yes to the possibilities: Faith is at heart of the law school graduate’s mission to open doors for people with disabilities

Katrina Gossett and Duke, her aid dog, wear their hoods at the University of Chicago Law School graduation ceremonies on June 12. (Submitted photo)

Katrina Gossett and Duke, her aid dog, wear their hoods at the University of Chicago Law School graduation ceremonies on June 12. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

She has steered through most of her life in a wheelchair, using a combination of faith and determination—and the help of a dog named Duke—to prepare for a future dedicated to helping others.

Katrina Gossett has also been an actress. In fact, her two favorite roles shine a spotlight on the heart of the 24-year-old Indianapolis woman who recently graduated from the University of Chicago Law School.

Playing the fairy godmother in Cinderella in high school connected nicely with Gossett’s belief in the power of dreams.

Then came her favorite part as a theater major at the University of Notre Dame—the role of Betty Blast, the owner of a diner in the musical Footloose.

“She’s a very strong female character,” says Gossett, a member of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “She is the wise woman who gives advice to the teenagers. She straightens them out.”

And there’s the essence of Gossett—a tough-minded, kind-hearted, faith-filled dreamer who has worked to make the Church more inclusive for people with disabilities and now wants to do the same in the world.

It’s quite an ambition for someone whose parents were once told that she likely wouldn’t live past her third birthday.

Keeping the faith

For anyone who is a parent, it’s easy to understand the wealth of emotions that Thecla and Darrell Gossett experienced when they watched their daughter graduate from the University of Chicago Law School in June.

As they saw her in her graduation hood—and a matching graduation hood for her aid dog, Duke—they remembered when she was diagnosed as a child with spinal muscular atrophy. They were told then that the neuromuscular disease progressively weakens the arms and egs. They were also told she wouldn’t live past the age of 3.

And there she was graduating with honors from one of the country’s top law schools—a fitting end to a three-year period when she was in the top 5 percent of her class, when she was named to a national honor society and when she worked in a legal clinic helping people with disabilities.

“She’s pretty amazing,” her mother says. “She has more ambition than I dreamed of having. She makes me so proud. Her faith is strong. She’s always been a very faithful person and a very Christian person. Her religion has always been a part of her life.”

Her faith has especially grown as a young woman.

“Going to Notre Dame and my time at Chicago has really strengthened my faith,” Gossett says. “I know to thank God for all the successes I’ve had. To go off to Chicago and do the things [that] I have been able to do, it would have been impossible without the help of God and my family. The longer I live, the more I realize what an important part of my life that is.”

Open doors and a dog named Duke

As Gossett talks, Duke rests by her wheelchair. They have been together for nearly four years—a relationship that began from necessity. The older Gossett gets, the more her disease progressively weakens her muscles. And Duke has been trained to help her when she needs it by picking up things, turning on lights, opening doors and moving her arms.

Now, Gossett is nearly inseparable from Duke, who is a mix of Labrador and golden retriever.

“He spends almost every waking hour with me,” she says. “Whenever I leave him home, I feel like I’ve left my right arm at home. I got him right before my senior year at Notre Dame and had him all through law school. He’s been through two graduations.”

Duke was by her side when she worked in a legal clinic that helped people facing job discrimination. Duke was also by her side when she volunteered as an intern in the Chicago mayor’s office that assisted people with disabilities.

“I think that was a great way to try to have an impact,” Gossett says.

It’s similar to the impact she has tried to have at St. Mark Parish, working on the inclusiveness committee.

“We do disability awareness events,” she says. “We also worked to do some physical changes to the church to make it accessible. Sometimes it’s just being aware of simple things, like making sure that a door that’s open doesn’t block the ramp to the church.”

Following God’s will

As the pastoral associate at St. Mark Parish, Mary Lynn Cavanaugh knows the difference that Gossett has made to the parish.

“I’ve known her for 15 years,” says Cavanaugh, who is also the director of religious education for the parish. “She liked going to religious education classes and sharing her faith. That was very unusual for a young child to want to do. As she grew up, that stayed with her. She knew God was working in her.

“She’s just a huge role model for faith in so many ways. She lives the fruits of the Holy Spirit. She has courage and fortitude, and she shows great reverence to Jesus, the sacraments and life. She prays to God about what to do and then she does it.”

Right now, Gossett is studying for the bar exam to become a lawyer. She has also accepted a job with an Indianapolis law firm, but the start of the job has been delayed until next year because of the current economic crisis. Yet Gossett is still determined to use her law degree to make a difference as soon as possible.

“I plan to do pro bono work for disability rights,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities that a lot of people with disabilities haven’t had. There are still a lot of barriers, and I’d like to help remove those barriers to show what people with disabilities are capable of.”

Saying yes to the possibilities

For Gossett, it’s all part of an approach to life that begins with this principle: “I never let anything stop me from doing what I think I should be doing.”

That approach has led her to embrace acting throughout most of her young life.

“I’ve always loved acting,” she says. “I did some acting in children’s theater programs when I was young, and I did more than 10 plays in high school. I just love being on the stage. It’s a great place to be and a great place to meet really interesting people.”

That approach has also led her to embrace all the joys and challenges of life.

“I’ve used a power wheelchair since I was 3, and I’ve never walked,” she says. “I’m part of the first generation [of people that have had the disease] that has lived as long as we have because of technology and medical advances. So we are the pioneers. I don’t mind that. Seeing people like myself gives hope to parents of younger children with the same diagnosis. Seeing us survive and have careers gives hope to them.”

So while Gossett’s approach to life has been formed by never taking “no” for an answer, it has been defined by saying “yes”—not only to the possibilities, but also to those who helped provide them.

“Having faith helps me do what I do,” she says. “And having the support of my family helps me. I try to do the best I can, and help others along the way.” †

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