Kristy Long is what you might call a dreamer. A dream is what allowed her to start a non-profit organization, work for senators and congressmen and got her into college. But before all of that, at the age of 13, Long first dreamt of being able to walk again. Long lost her ability to walk due to her debilitating battle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
As a 2-year old, Long was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease that attacked her joints, eventually leaving her with no cartilage between her hips and knees.
“I had to use a wheelchair because I absolutely couldn’t stand the pain of walking. That was the hardest decision I had ever made because walking was my freedom, and to me my freedom is everything,” Long said.
Doctors couldn’t operate on Long until she had finished growing, so the rest of her childhood was spent in wheelchair. Throughout those years, Long used her illness to advocate on capitol hill asking for more funds to research her disease.
Once Long turned 17, she underwent procedures replacing her hips, knees and ankles. After four years in a wheelchair, she began the arduous process of learning how to walk again.
“The first time they set me on my feet, I felt dizzy and fell over,” Long recalled.
After taking those first steps, Long began focusing on her next dream, attending college. For two years she attended Tulsa Community College where she worked on strengthening both her body and mind before enrolling in her dream school, Oklahoma State University.
“My parents were scared to death of me going away to college on my own but that was my dream and there wasn’t anything that was going to stop me,” she said. “I was thrilled and proud of myself that I had made it there… but it was also very hard on me.”
Walking across campus from her dorm room to her classroom was a difficult task, not to mention tackling challenging classes. Long said though she was the healthiest she’d ever been, she felt alone.
“I felt like nobody really understood what I was going through,” she said. “I remember thinking there’s got to be an organization out there that can meet my needs, not only with scholarship money but can also help disabled students through the system of getting a college degree.”
That idea would later become the DREAM Institute, an organization that awards scholarships to students with disabilities and helps assist their educational success.
Before co-founding the organization, Long received a bachelor’s degree in political science and later a master’s degree in public administration. Her first job out of college was in Senator David Boren’s office where she worked for several years. She said Boren greatly influenced her and taught her the importance of giving back to the community.
“Around that time, I kept hearing all of these stories about people with disabilities who couldn’t go to college because they didn’t have a support system. That really pushed me to think maybe it’s time to do something,” Long said.
Finally in 2002, she did do something about it. That first year the DREAM Institute started with four scholars who received aid for up to five years of college. The organization selects two new scholars each year. Currently, there are 12 scholars going through college and 14 students who have graduated.
Brandy Donelson, a DREAM Institute alumnus who has ADD and ADHD says the scholarship program is unique and a great help for students with disabilities.
“[The DREAM Institute] not only helped financially,” Donelson said, “but they really provided a great support system. They help you utilize your resources at school, allowing you to take advantage of opportunities that many people don’t know are available.”
The DREAM Institute also helped connect Donelson and other scholars with tutors and mentors.
The Institute is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization. Its largest annual fundraiser, Power to DREAM Achievers Award Banquet, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The event will be presenting an award in memory of a former scholarship recipient, Nate Waters. Waters was left paralyzed at the age of 19 and, through the organization’s assistance, was able to achieve his dream of attending OSU. He worked as an accountant at WPX Energy Inc. after school, but many were touched by his philanthropic work. A media release published by the DREAM Institute recalls Waters as “an inspirational speaker” who often spoke “to young kids about adversity and acceptance of disabilities.”
Long hopes this year’s event will be bigger and better than ever so she can achieve her next dream, awarding more annual scholarships. Each scholarship recipient receives an average of $1,000 per semester.
“Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve and that you can’t overcome adversity and get that degree,” Long said. “It may take you a little longer but we want to help motivate you to never give up.”