Armless Teen With an Unbeatable Spirit

Feb. 8, 2003 -- Jessica Parks says there wasn't too much that was hard for her growing up. "I just learned to adapt and had my parents and my friends to help me on my way," she said.

Jessica's life has a lot to do with balance — the balance she's achieved in school, as both an athlete and a member of the National Honor Society; and the physical balance she has learned and trained for — playing on her school's soccer team, and flying into the air as a part of cheerleading routines.

The 17-year-old achieved that balance and all of these successes even though she has no arms.

Jessica is a senior at North Branch High School in southeastern Michigan. She came here as a sophomore and walked through the school's front door with an anxiety that went beyond the usual teenage uncertainties, and she waited for others to react.

"I was kind of really nervous; especially not having arms … I remember walking through the halls and just looking around. … I saw all these kids, they were all looking at me, and I was like wow, this is kind of scary."

The kids do notice. Then, they forget and wind up focusing on the remarkable abilities Jessica has displayed from her infancy, now to the verge of adulthood. That, to her friends, makes her a story worth telling, and an example worth remembering.

One Day at a Time

Jessica's mother, Yvonne Parmenter, says tests she received during pregnancy had not prepared her for what doctors told her shortly after Jessica's birth. "They said that she had a handicap — that she was born without arms. And they ran the gamut of testing on her. And everything else came back perfect," she said.

What the tests showed was that Jessica's condition was one of those rare circumstances — with no indications of a history or cause in her family.

Jessica's mom recalls, "Everybody said, you know, just, just focus on one day at a time, and one accomplishment at a time. And it will all fall into place. And it did."

She said Jessica tore up countless diapers because she had to scoot, rather than crawl, as an infant. "She pulled herself around with her little heels and scooted all over the floor."

Parmenter said they tried giving Jessica prosthetic arms when she was a child, but Jessica didn't like them. "I figured that I was better off without them. I'm able to do everything with my feet a lot easier. And so I just don't need them," Jessica said.

Ever Determined

The determination she showed in her early years set the tone for how she would approach life.

Her stepfather, Geoffrey Parmenter, says one of Jessica's most important early lessons was learning how to fall. "There were times when she'd be walking along, if she caught a crack in the sidewalk she would, you know, right smack on her face, and she received a few stitches for that. And so we worked with her, to not fall forward, but to turn," he said.

Jessica realized very quickly, and in many ways, that she was different. Her mom said, "We had neighbors that wouldn't allow their children to play with her. She was real upset over that."

Jessica said she doesn't worry too much about what people think of her anymore.

"When I was littler it was a big thing. I felt really uncomfortable in restaurants, eating with my feet, because there were a lot of stares. … I can understand that, but it made me feel really uncomfortable."

The extent to which Jessica has achieved the near impossible is evident even in the small things she does, such as putting on a pair of contact lenses. The motivation is twofold: to prove she can do it, and to fit in at school.

"Honestly, I didn't want to come to school with braces and glasses, and I went to my eye doctor and she basically told me that there would be no way that I could do it, and that's what made me even more determined," she said.

She wanted to drive the family tractor, which involves shifting through five gears and turning a sluggish steering wheel. And within minutes after her stepfather told her he didn't think she could manage it, there she was, making her rounds of the yard.

‘I See So Much for Her’

But one of her most unlikely dreams was to join the cheerleading squad at North Branch High School. Her parents were encouraging, but a bit leery, she said. They weren't sure how Jessica would manage in an activity that involved so much work with hands. But, as she had countless times before, Jessica managed just fine.

One thing that surprised Jessica was when students from competing schools wrote to express their support. "They just say things like you're, you're an inspiration, you know, uh, we really appreciate what you're doing. You're doing awesome," she said.

One of Jessica's main goals now is to drive. That will require a special teacher, and a specially-equipped car, but no one doubts it will happen. She plans to study accounting and business management in college, and she has already begun to shine in college preparatory classes — keeping track of sales and inventories, and entering the information in spreadsheets.

It's conventional wisdom to wish for someone at this stage of life to live up to her potential. In many ways, Jessica Parks already has exceeded hers; and in the future this graduating senior may simply have to live up to herself.

"She is only 17, but what she has worked for, and what she has strived for, and how much she's got already, I see, I see so much for her," her mom said.

Jessica says she thinks about the incredible challenges she's faced, and overcome, and about why she's here. She said, "I guess I think I was put here as an inspiration to others — just to show people that whatever they set their mind to, they can get it done, and it doesn't matter what other people say or think. If you want to do something, you can do it. Pretty much anything I set my mind to, I'll be able to figure it out."

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