Breaking New Ground

A college freshman in a power chair is the first in her school’s history to go through sorority ‘rush’

by Bill Norman on December 10, 2009 - 6:16pm

On one of her first days at the University of Missouri, freshman Gabriella Garbero achieved campus-wide notoriety when her father Matt passed out in her dormitory.

He wasn’t impaired -- other than being dehydrated and not having eaten for most of the day, and having diabetes, which he found out about from that experience. The stress of helping his daughter get settled into college life probably also played a part.

"Gabs" at her senior prom.

As it happened, Garbero herself also had plenty of additional reason for being in the public eye. The 18-year-old from Chesterfield, Mo., who has spinal muscular atrophy, was the first full-time user of a wheelchair in the university’s history to fully participate in sorority recruitment.

Classy, sweet and smart

Several “Mizzou” sororities “bid” on her, but she decided Kappa Kappa Gamma was the one for her.  The online Urban Dictionary says KKG members “are known for being classy, sweet and smart … if not a little spoiled and proud … Kappas are charming and cute with a taste for adventure to match anyone’s.”

Garbero says yep, that’s her all right. As she grew up, she says her family made sure she knew that her disability would never stop her from doing anything she wanted to.  “That was what I felt about joining KKG. I wasn’t having any thoughts like, ‘people in wheelchairs don’t join sororities.’ It was something I wanted to do, and I did it,” she says.

Gabriella being interviewed at a recent St. Louis MDA telethon

Accessibility to the sorority house was at first an issue. When traveling from house to house to see what each had to offer, Garbero had a friend bring along portable wheelchair ramps so she could navigate curbs and steps. None of the buildings was fully accessible because they’re private clubs and not subject to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Working on accessibility

At the KKG house, she says she wasn’t inclined to be pushy (“that’s not my style”), but she did ask Kappa officers if they would consider adding wheelchair ramps to give her access to the ground floor and dining room, where she eats lunch several times a week. They were very agreeable, she says, and within three weeks the house had installed three ramps for her use.

The second floor of the sorority house, including sleeping areas, is still inaccessible because it’s quite old, and modifications would be prohibitively expensive for the short term, a fact Garbero understands. “I feel strongly about accessibility, but they obviously didn’t know I was going to be coming along right at this moment. I’m going to take it one step at a time … work with people to make things happen.”

The Mizzou Kappas installed a ramp in their dining room, making it wheelchair accessible.

Garbero lives full time in a dormitory on campus with her best friend Kristen Montgomery whom she met at MDA summer camp, and who also uses a wheelchair. The two each have their own room, and a third room is for use of their caregivers, to whom they have access 24/7.  Garbero’s father made the family’s wheelchair-adapted van available and when the girls need to travel, sorority sisters and friends are happy to do the driving.

The whiz kid

With accessibility issues addressed, Garbero has freedom to concentrate on her studies, an area in which she excels.

Matt confirms his daughter’s academic credentials. Two years ago when his wife, who was enrolled in a master’s degree program, mentioned to Gabriella some new aspect of algebra she had learned, the gifted youngster replied, “Mom, I learned that in second grade.”

And when mom was preparing her master’s thesis, who did she consult as her proofreader? Sixteen-year-old Gabriella, the academic whiz, of course.

Her plans at this time are to take classes toward a career as a screenplay writer and director. After getting her undergrad degree at University of Missouri, she intends to go for her masters in California at UCLA, Berkeley or USC, all schools with top curricula in her fields of interest.

Her dad grew up in California and she’s visited the area, likes the climate and -- not incidentally -- Hollywood is always on the lookout for new talent ready to break through old barriers.


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