Shannon Strader BS’14 is no stranger to pain. At age 8 she lost her twin sister, Lauryn, to complications arising from cerebral palsy. Strader herself suffered from an excruciating condition that was eventually diagnosed as posterior nutcracker syndrome, a rare kidney disease where the renal vein is anatomically displaced and compressed by the spinal cord and aorta.
“I never knew what it was like to not be in pain,” Strader says. “I never went a day without a stabbing pain in my lower back and abdomen. I never knew what it was like to eat without feeling nauseated. I never knew what it was like to have a functional body.”
A series of surgeries alleviated her suffering, but not before Strader had reached college age. From her anguish, two dreams arose. One was to work with pioneering stem cell researcher Jamie Thomson in his regenerative biology lab at UW–Madison’s Morgridge Institute for Research. Another was to found a nonprofit that would provide emotional support and financial assistance to college students coping with disease or disabilities.
Strader was successful on both counts. She worked in Thomson’s lab all four years, and for her capstone project as a CALS biology major conducted research involving DNMT3B, a gene that plays an important role in embryonic development.
And—with help from the Thomson lab, the McBurney Disability Resource Center, and fellow students Lauren Wilmet, Harris Sinsley, Kym Ludwig, Al Ritger, Jamie Holt and Matt Anderson—she founded Bella Soul, a nonprofit that in just over one year of operation has provided scholarships to six students and support to countless others.
• Why is Bella Soul needed?
Before Bella Soul, out of the nation’s 1.5 million nonprofits, there was not one directed toward helping college students confronting chronic illness or disability through scholarships and/or emotional support that wasn’t limited to a specific illness. Bella Soul does not favor a particular disease. Another cool thing is that 100 percent of our donors’ money goes to scholarships. We pay for our printers, paper and fundraising galas through corporate donations. We do not pay our “employees,” either.
• What kind of feedback have you gotten?
Individuals who read our stories online say they have been blown away by what some young adults persevere through every day while working hard to accomplish their dreams. Every story and scholarship application we have received I have cried over and really been touched by.
• Can you share a few examples?
In this last scholarship round, we were going to give out one scholarship. Instead we ended up giving out four. How do you decide between Sarah, who has to deal with the difficulties of cerebral palsy financially and emotionally, and Cheyenne, who recently was diagnosed with cancer? We ended up giving a scholarship to both of them, along with two others.
• You’ve just started medical school in Tennessee. What are your long-term hopes for Bella Soul and your career?
Our plan is to start Bella Soul chapters at other universities and provide resources for hospitals to share with teenagers transitioning to college. As for my career, I hope to someday establish my own cerebral palsy clinic as well as be a principal investigator in an embryology/developmental research lab.
Learn more at http://livebellasoul.org