A Spirit Greater Than Adversity

Born with a brittle bone disorder, Rebecca Perritt has broken more than 200 bones in her 22-year life. But nothing, not even negotiating college life in a wheelchair, can break this Eastern Kentucky University senior’s spirit.

Rewind just a few years, back to George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester, where Perritt first fell in love with ceramics and her first assignment was a coin bank.

“I had been tossing around ideas in my head and finally one hit me. I e-mailed my teacher in the middle of the summer, asking if I could make a plumber bending over into a sink and have his pants coming down and insert the coin in his …”

Well, you get the picture, and an idea how Perritt’s whimsy, joviality and outlook on life have helped her overcome adversity and endeared her to faculty and classmates alike.

Maybe that explains why an inventive addition to the ceramics lab in the basement of the University’s Campbell Building is such cause for celebration – not just for this ceramics major but for all who know her.

Bound to her wheelchair, Perritt had been unable to throw pottery on a standard wheel, as her classmates did.

“I knew that aspect of my dream may not be possible,” she said, “but I’ve always worked with what I do have. It’s best not to dwell on what you can’t do but what you can.”

Enter Joe Molinaro, in the final year of his award-winning teaching career at EKU and a professor known as much for his compassion as his teaching. Not surprisingly, Molinaro, a Foundation Professor of art and a principal figure behind the launch of the highly successful Empty Bowls fund-raisers to feed the hungry in Richmond and Winchester, was focused only on the possible.

So, more than a year ago, the veteran ceramics professor began discussions with Brent Wheel manufacturer AMACO (American Art and Clay Company) – starting with former EKU ceramics tech Stephen Creech, now director of social media with the Indianapolis company – to see if a wheel could be specially designed for Perritt, even if it cost the program as much as $3,000.

“AMACO took it on as a design issue and redesigned the wheel to be smaller and more compact, yet functional,” Molinaro said. “After months of redesigning the wheel, they finally presented us with it, and we figured we would be purchasing it then. But they offered to give it to us, asking that we be a test site to see how it works prior to introducing it to the general market. In exchange, we will report back to them the pros and cons of the new design before they put it into production and provide them pictures of Rebecca using it for promotional materials as they market it.”

After years of wondering if she would be able to fully pursue her passion, Perritt used the wheel for the first time on Sept. 9.

“The first time was nerve-wracking,” she allowed. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to grasp the movements with my left hand. Because of my disorder, I have broken my left arm at least 20 times, so a large majority of growing up I had a sling around my arm. So I trained myself to do a large majority of daily tasks using only my right arm.”
The more Perritt worked with the wheel, though, the more comfortable she felt. “Once I learned the tricks and listened to my professor and my friends, I was able to do it fairly well.”

Said Molinaro: “It was exciting for all of us.”

Watch the easy repartee between Molinaro and Perritt and this much is clear: though the professor admires his protégé’s spunk and spirit, he doesn’t coddle her. And Perritt wouldn’t have it any other way.

“He treats me like any other student,” she said, “which is really what I am. I just can’t walk.”

Little wonder Perritt is “loved by everybody in this department,” according to Molinaro. “She has never let her handicap get in the way. She’ll joke with everybody about her limitations and overcome them with great poise. I’ve never seen anybody take day-to-day difficulties like she has with such grace.”

After she wheels her way across the commencement stage next May, Perritt plans to pursue a master’s degree and her own career as a college professor.

Molinaro, for one, is predicting success. “I think you’ll see Rebecca really excel in the arts,” he said. “She already has.”

For now, the special wheel near a corner of Room 101 of the Campbell Building stands as something of a symbol, a reminder that EKU truly is a “School of Opportunity.”

“It demonstrates our commitment to the students, regardless of their personal restrictions, in this case being handicapped,” Molinaro said. “We are dedicated to our students’ success, even if it requires us to find new and creative ways to meet their individual needs. For us in the art department, like all areas on campus I am sure, we think it should always be ‘students first’ and that we should do all we can to help them succeed, regardless of the obstacles presented.”