A profile on T.U.F.F.S-teens united for support

Grace Berchem

Sometimes, we all just want to feel normal. That’s exactly what Leah Miller’12 had in mind when she created T.U.F.F.S. Teens United for Support is a group for teenagers dealing with physical disabilities.

Physical disabilities that have been represented in the group include, but are certainly not limited to, Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida and Muscular Dystrophy. Awareness and understanding of these diseases and disorders are growing, but that doesn’t change the fact that those affected are so often singled out and stared at just because they look different.

Leader and organizer Miller is a Lawrence student who has also been interning with Easter Seals Wisconsin as an AmeriCorps member for the past two years. Her involvement with Easter Seals is what made this group possible.

Lawrence Junior Shannon McLain and Mike Miller, a student at Fox Valley Technical College, also serve as group leaders and organizers.

Though the word “support” is in the name, T.U.F.F.S. is meant primarily as a social group; they host monthly events which have included activities like mall trips, bowling, swimming, a scavenger hunt and a Packer party.

It’s an opportunity for teenagers with physical disabilities to meet other people their own age with similar challenges and get to know them in a social setting.

Miller explained, “The primary goal is to get kids out into the community doing things ‘normal’ teenagers do for fun with friends, so they don’t feel left out. With T.U.F.F.S., they have an outlet where they don’t have to feel judged or different.”

Miller and Easter Seals may have put the group into action, but the idea came from Mike Hipple, an Appleton teen with Cerebral Palsy. As someone singled out for having a physical disability, Mike felt very alone and so asked the Easter Seals staff for advice on how to create a group for other kids like himself.

When asked how he came up with the idea, Hipple said, “I had a bright idea of a great club. I thought this idea up after two hard days of school where I did nothing but feel sorry for myself. I remember saying to myself, okay, I won’t do this anymore and I need to make sure that nobody goes through this again.”

After hearing Mike’s story, the staff at Easter Seals was inspired to help him create and organize the group, instead of simply giving him advice. Over the past year, it has taken off and continues to grow.

Keeping in theme with T.U.F.F.S.’ social focus, the main communication for the group is done through a Facebook group. There are currently a little over 100 members to the group. Anyone interested in upcoming T.U.F.F.S. events is welcome to join. In addition, there are fliers put up at local high schools.

Miller said, “The kids are so extremely grateful and thankful for what you do. It means the world to them. I always say Lawrence sets you up to make a difference, and you really can.”

At this point, most of the volunteers come from Appleton West’s Key Club, but there are also a few volunteers from Lawrence and additional volunteers are always welcome. The only expectation of volunteers is that they engage with the teens and have fun doing it.

Besides volunteers, AmeriCorps will need to fill Miller’s position at Easter Seals next fall, since she is currently a senior. Whoever is chosen is then provided with a monthly stipend as well as an educational grant. There is also a training weekend for new members early in the fall.

Anyone who would like to get involved or is interested in this opportunity should contact either Miller or her supervisor, Jill Gretzinger, at Jgretzinger@eastersealswisconsin.com.