Inspired by her own experience with disability, a Bloomington native is on a mission to raise awareness for the plight of disabled people living in developing countries
If Kelsey Lindell had been born in a rural part of Africa instead of Minnesota, there’s a good chance that she wouldn’t be alive today. Born with a radial clubbed hand – which leaves her with a shorter left arm than most people and two missing fingers on her left hand – Lindell would have been viewed as cursed or demon-possessed, and likely beaten, burned, chained up in her backyard or completely abandoned by her family. There’s an overwhelming possibility Lindell wouldn’t have lived past her fifth birthday and if she had, most likely would never be able to find a job once she reached adulthood.
But Lindell, 22, wasn’t born in Africa, she was born in Bloomington. She grew up with a loving family, lots of friends, a strong faith and the knowledge that she could do anything she put her mind to, regardless of her disability. She took honors classes at Jefferson High School, and became active in dance.
“My parents taught me when I was really young, if people ask you, you say that’s the way God made me and one day we’ll know why,” Lindell said.
After an injury sidelined her plans to pursue a college degree in dance and education, Lindell chose to embark on a year of mission work, spending the first six months working in Argentina before making her way to Cape Town, South Africa.
One year turned into three as Lindell fell in love with the country and the children she worked with at Tembaletu, a school for children with mental and physical disabilities. The students at Tembaletu were denied admission to mainstream schools, as their disability carried a heavy stigma in their communities. But they were at least in school – 90 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries never receive an education.
“My parents taught me when I was really young, if people ask you, you say that’s the way God made me and one day we’ll know why.”
“I tell people I’m working with special needs kids in Africa, and they assume like ‘Oh, it’s like the special needs kids here, it’s like Special Olympics,” Lindell said. But a trip out of developed Cape Town to a rural Kenyan hospital showed her how drastically different the treatment of people with disabilities between the U.S. and Africa really was.
There she met a toddler with a cleft palate who, after being literally thrown away by his family, was attacked by a coyote and lost a leg. Another child was left in a full body cast after her father doused her with gasoline and set her on fire.
“When you see that kind of stuff in person, you realize something’s got to be done,” Lindell said. “People in America have no idea this is going on.”
Lindell is now back home, and beginning a new journey to raise awareness for the treatment of children with disabilities in developing countries. On October 1, 2014, she launched Uphold Global, a non-profit organization that aims to raise awareness for the issue in the United States, while connecting organizations in Africa who can work together to help children and empower local communities to break the stigma associated with disability. Starting a non-profit at age 22 was never part of Lindell’s plan, but after her research showed just how little the abysmal statistics surrounding the cause had changed in recent years, she knew she had to step in.
High school classmates, acquaintances from Lindell’s church, and family friends all shared similar sentiments: if anyone was going to do this, it would be Lindell.
“I’ve had people warn me ‘It’s going to be hard!’ but I don’t care,” Lindell said. “It wouldn’t be as hard as going to bed every night or going to a basic nine to five job and knowing that I could’ve done something about this.”
Uphold Global is comprised of Lindell, a small office staff, a board of directors, and a support network of friends and family all touched, in one way or another, by the stories Lindell brought back with her from Africa. The night before Uphold officially launched, close to 100 supporters gathered at Restore Collaborative, the shared office space the organization is based out of, to hear her speak about her goals for the organization. High school classmates, acquaintances from Lindell’s church, and family friends all shared similar sentiments: if anyone was going to do this, it would be Lindell.
Lindell is aware that she seems an unlikely catalyst for change when it comes to a deep-rooted issue in countries thousands of miles away from her own. But her passion for the children and her wish for every child with a disability to have the same opportunities for a normal life that she had growing up, keeps her driven.
“Pretty much everything about me makes me the least qualified person to change this on a large scale there. I’m American, I’m white, I’m female, I’m disabled, and I’m young,” Lindell said. “But all those things also empower me to be the biggest advocate for those children here.”