Alissah Paquette’s unshakeable values and ability to self-advocate have helped her through when the going got rough
Before the age of 12, Alissah Paquette self-funded a mission trip to Guatemala and collected over 10,000 boxes of crayons for donation to the Maine Children’s Home. She became a water safety instructor for children with special needs at age 15—a lifelong dream. She also runs a branch of Apparel Impact, a family-owned business dedicated to collecting clothes and shoes that are no longer wearable and selling them to recycling companies. Paquette uses the proceeds for this work to fund local clothing giveaways that offer free food and games to attendees, as well as to support her future college education.
When not occupied with her business or swim instruction, the Waterville teen, who’s now 17, volunteers in both a fifth-grade classroom, helping students with reading and writing, and in a grade school art class, prepping supplies and directing art projects. She pursues all of these activities on top of a rigorous high school schedule.
While that’s an impressive roster of pursuits for any teen, what makes Paquette’s activities all the more noteworthy is that she must adapt on a daily basis to limitations from both a rare bone disorder, multiple osteochondromatosis, and a verbal language processing condition known as apraxia of speech. She was born with both.
Paquette has undergone three surgeries to enable her to walk and write. She’s a lefty, and her dominant arm is the one affected by the disorder, so she’s had to work hard to gain mobility. While adapting to profound physical limitations, Paquette learned to speak between the ages of 4 and 6 through a meticulous, five-days-a-week program involving a PEX book, which helped her link images to phonemes and master verbal language in a way that many of us take for granted. In her typical fashion, she completed the projected five-year program in just two years, and speaks clearly and eloquently, despite daily struggles to articulate her thoughts into the intended words—a difficulty specific to this form of apraxia.
Paquette’s been asked to speak several times at Hospital Night, a fundraiser for Shriners Hospitals for Children, where she receives free medical care due to Shriners extensive fundraising model. She speaks about her experiences as a patient with complex physical and neurological challenges. Does she get nervous? “Not really,” she explains with her signature smile.
For Paquette, “being differently abled just means doing something differently than someone else, but coming to the same endpoint.” High school can be difficult for any student, and Paquette’s experience as a differently-abled individual has included peaks and valleys, and her peers have not always been kind.
But her unshakeable values and ability to self-advocate have helped her through when the going got rough. Though she must make daily adaptations to succeed in an academic environment, her involvement in her own education has fueled her success. “It’s not so much time management as pacing,” she explains of her process in writing papers, planning out the time it will take for her to produce while taking the breaks she needs to prevent physical and mental fatigue. Paquette qualifies for a 504 classroom accommodation, which includes a stipulation that, if she gives a presentation in class, her grade cannot be based on the verbal act of presenting. However, the Waterville teen and public speaker recently chose to have the accommodations lifted, a groundbreaking decision for someone with the speech issues she has had to overcome.
Self-reliant, driven and compassionate, Paquette is an ally for other students, especially those with special needs. She recently challenged a peer for teasing someone who stuttered while speaking in front of the class, and has turned down dates with boys whose behavior does not align with her values. “How could I spend time with someone who teases others?”
While high school has been rocky, Paquette feels “confident and ready” to graduate and embark on her future. In the fall, she will attend Thomas College in Waterville with 18 credits already under her belt, pursuing an undergraduate degree in elementary education. Following graduation, she plans to enter a graduate program that will prepare her to become a certified child life specialist, a role made dear to her by the many providers who encouraged her during multiple surgeries and intense verbal training.
But first, a break. Before heading to college, Paquette will spend the summer as a counselor at Pine Tree Camp in Oakland, a program for children and adults with disabilities who wish to enjoy the rich outdoor activities Maine has to offer. She also plans to take pictures, a passion that she pursues with a simple point-and-shoot camera and an eye for beauty.
To those who struggle in any capacity, be it physical, mental or emotional, Paquette’s advice echoes with the wisdom of someone who’s been there. “Keep going. It gets better.”
Chelsea Terris Scott is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She is deeply inspired by the incredible girls she has been privileged to speak with.