BELMONT — There’s just something about Kelly Finger McNeela that draws people to her. Maybe it’s her positive attitude, maintained in the face of decades of severe multiple sclerosis (MS). Maybe it’s the way she remembers your name, the names of your kids, the topic of a conversation shared weeks earlier.
Whatever that elusive “something” is, it piqued the interest of local author Doreen Rickert Rademacher back when both women had children attending Belmont Elementary School.
“Kelly has a very charming personality,” Rademacher said. “She remembers things about you and just has a natural way to her. We met and became friends, and the more I learned about her, the more I thought, ‘Wow, people would really be inspired by the things she’s done.’”
An MS sufferer since age 15, McNeela nonetheless graduated from Belding High School, where she was voted homecoming queen. Struggling across the stage to receive her diploma, she received a standing ovation from the audience. McNeela describes it as one of the finest moments of her life.
From there she attended Michigan State University; by this time confined to a wheelchair, yet somehow navigating the enormous campus summer and winter. While at MSU, she was introduced to wheelchair tennis, a horizon-broadening experience.
“It opened her eyes to the fact she could still go places and lead a normal life, even though she was in a wheelchair,” Rademacher said.
For her internship, McNeela worked with the Paralympic Organizing Committee for the 1996 games in Atlanta. It was the first time she had ever lived on her own. Getting around in a strange new city provided its own unique set of challenges, but McNeela again rose to the occasion.
Her biggest challenges, however, were yet to come. And they almost proved her undoing.
McNeela and Rademacher met in the summer of 2010. Not long after, Rademacher came up with the idea of putting McNeela’s experiences into book form.
“I asked her if she was willing to give it a try,” Rademacher said. “She said she would help me, but didn’t think there was anything in her life story worth writing about.”
Rademacher knew better and commenced a series of interviews that would continue for about two years. Because of her condition, McNeela tires easily and was able to be interviewed for only an hour or two each week.
The two were just a month into the interview process when McNeela fell into deep despair and depression after moving into a nursing home. Her situation was compounded by the death shortly thereafter of her grandmother, with whom she had been very close. The final blow came when her husband filed for divorce.
Months passed before McNeela began the long process of pulling herself up by the bootstraps and getting on with her life.
The divorce, hard as it was, actually turned out to be a good thing.
“She decided she’d been relying on other people to make her decisions for too long,” Rademacher said. “She changed her power of attorney and moved on. She wanted to be on her own.”
With the help of Rademacher and a few other close friends, McNeela located new housing at Green Acres in Lowell. The facility allows her the freedom to live an independent lifestyle, one which includes frequent visits from her daughter, Rylee.
Rademacher’s book, “I Can and I Did! The Kelly Finger McNeela Story,” examines the arduous road McNeela has travelled from childhood to the present. It is a celebration of her indomitable spirit in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
“No matter how bad things may seem, there’s always someone else that has it worse,” McNeela said. “I hope to encourage people to focus on what they can do and inspire them to go do it.”
Though Rademacher has a journalism degree from Central Michigan University, this is her first book. The book is currently available at Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids.
Rademacher is the sister-in-law of award winning Grand Rapids Press columnist and author Tom Rademacher.
“At long last, the Rademacher family finally has a real writer among its ranks,” Tom Rademacher said.