The Perfect Legacy

Story and photographs by Angela Wilhelm

From the moment she entered this world, a lot of people made some broad assumptions about who she could and could not become.

Emily Lezon was born 12 weeks premature at 2 pounds, 13 ounces, with a neural tube defect. She was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Medical professionals with fancy degrees assumed she would never talk. They were wrong.

Specialists with teams of interns hovered over her, concluding she would never sit up straight. They were wrong.

Some said cheerleading would be too difficult for her — it would be too cold outside, and she’d be unable to move like the other girls.

They were wrong, too.

Emily, now 17, has spent her entire life defying expectations and disproving grand assumptions.

So when she decided from her wheelchair that she wanted to be a cheerleader, most people assumed there was no possible way.

With help from her parents, Vicki and Todd, Emily paved her own way, as has become her custom.

“We walked into a doctor once and he said, ‘So, she can’t talk,’ and I said, ‘Would you like to hear her say her ABC’s?’” Vicki said. “We learned pretty quickly to not let anybody set limitations.”

When Emily decided she wanted to be a cheerleader, her parents saw it as an opportunity for her to lead the way for future students like her.

“A Friday night football game is probably the biggest thing that happens,” Todd said. “So many people get to see Emily out there supporting her team, and we’ve had tons of people say, ‘That’s really cool, why doesn’t our school do that?”

When they’re approached with that question, the Lezons know they are making a difference in more than just Emily’s life.

Emily is now a senior at Vermilion High School, where she sees everyone as a friend. She gabs with other students at lunch and looks forward to being part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in her Teen Leadership class. She can brighten her peers’ days with just a sentence or a smile.

“You could be having the worst week, and (with) just one minute of Emily’s time, you will be smiling for the rest of your week,” said fellow cheerleader Hannah Sharpe, a senior.

Not shy about displaying her trademark enthusiasm and confidence, Emily said, “I’m a very happy girl.”

Her happiness is infectious, and she has become a role model for other students, Vicki said.

Her perseverance cannot be ignored.    

Emily had two emergency surgeries the weekend before school started this year.

“She came home from the hospital on a Monday, went to school on Tuesday, and cheered Friday,” Vicki said, beaming.

She even went to cheerleading practice when she wasn’t allowed to move her arms because of the stitches in her head, neck and stomach.

“She just keeps plugging along,” her mother said. “It’s hard to keep her down.”

When she leaves school, the rest of her day is full of bows and high pony tails with her Vermilion Sailors squad or with Ohio Extreme, a competition team, at Avon’s Tumbles and Cheers.

“Those girls I see every day put a big smile on my face whenever I see them,” Emily said. “That makes me feel good.”

In preparation for a recent performance with the Ohio Extreme squad, Vicki did Emily’s makeup and helped her put her shoes on. Todd changed the Sailor emblem on the tires of her electric wheelchair to a silver star, in support of Ohio Extreme.

The constant help from her parents does not go unnoticed — she often offers up a meaningful “thank you.” She never gets nervous in front of the crowds at football games, basketball games and competitions.

“I just love the spirit. It changed my life’s impact” she said of her five years as a cheerleader.

She proudly wheels to the front of the crowds, where she lets her spirit shine. She has found unique ways to show her spirit with her wheelchair, like decorating it with sparkles and team emblems. For the final pose with Ohio Extreme, her fellow cheerleaders lift her out of her chair, above their heads.

“I learned that I can do anything, even though I’m in a wheelchair,” she said. “I’ve found ways to do it.”

“Part of Emily’s legacy at Vermilion High School is when she’s graduated people will say, ‘Wait a second, this is what we can do, we’ll find a way,’” Todd said. “When you talk about a person’s legacy, that’s perfect.”