PHOENIX — We all know sports can teach us skills that translate in the real world like how to work with a team, how to be a leader and how to overcome adversity. One Valley teen putting those skills into practice as United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) of Central Arizona's Youth Ambassador of the Year.
Fifteen-year-old Charlie Duffy loves softball. She took her first steps on a softball field and grew up watching her older sister play the game. Charlie currently plays for her high school team, Northwest Christian, and a club team, the AZ Killer Bees.
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As a catcher, Charlie learned how to use her voice and now she’s providing a lesson in perseverance by showing those around her how to overcome adversity with the help of her community.
"I just love being living proof that if you work super hard you can achieve your dreams,” Charlie said. “It might look different for other people, but dreams are always capable of achieving."
Charlie was diagnosed with hemiplegic cerebral palsy when she was just three years old. Her condition affects the entire left side of her body including her left leg and hip. She's undergone countless surgeries and medical procedures in her 15 years.
“We lost count a while ago,” Charlie said. “On May 23, I had my femur cut in half and lengthened and had a metal plate put in. I had my hamstring and Achilles cut and lengthened and then my adductor cut and lengthened."
Throughout her life, Charlie’s been through occupational therapy and physical therapy. She’s spent the majority of her life in a series of casts or braces. In fact, she played soccer and did ballet in casts as a little girl, but her heart was always with softball.
"Once we got the diagnosis as cerebral palsy, we didn't let that define who she was. The answer has always been ‘yes,’” Charlie’s mom, Heather Duffy, said. “Whatever she wanted to do whatever she has had her mind set to do we've supported that 100%."
With help from United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona, Charlie has been able to enjoy life as an active and confident kid. Atalie Ho Lem has worked with Charlie at UCP since her diagnosis and says one thing that hasn’t changed is her never-give-up attitude.
"Through Charlie’s perseverance and never giving up and her spirit rising above she's reaching her dreams,” Ho Lem said. “It is amazing to see her playing softball and she talked about that when she was little… She persevered and never complained during all of the intervention that I was providing for her."
Now people are looking to Charlie for inspiration and guidance on their own CP journeys. In May, she spoke at UCP’s annual fundraising gala honoring its 70th anniversary where she delivered a powerful message.
"I basically just told the audience that you don't know anybody's story sitting next to you and just always be compassionate to your neighbor and that you can live a life without limits," Charlie said. "Being vulnerable can be hard for a lot of people but if you look at anybody, if you think of your hero or someone you look up to, they had to be vulnerable to the world and that's how many people can look up to them."
Charlie has dreams of going from the softball field to the medical field when she gets older. Her goals include playing college softball and then becoming a pediatric nurse. Those aspirations were informed by her time at UCP. Many of her early memories were made inside the phoenix facility with therapists who have become more like family.
"I hope she plays college softball. that is her dream. I hope that I can be able to be instrumental in her rehab process to get her back on the field," Ho Lem said. "Charlie just embodies everything UCP hopes for and that is a confident young girl, that she loves herself, that she has self-compassion, that she's kind and that she is sending this message to so many other families and children that you can rise above."
Charlie has another long road to recovery ahead after her most recent surgery. It will be several weeks before she can start bearing weight again and then she essentially has to re-learn all the things that took her years to master. But rest assured, this 15-year-old is ready to take on the challenge.
"I think when I get back on the field, I’ll be stronger and faster," Duffy said. “I figured out [cerebral palsy] wasn't something I’d be able to get rid of and I learned how to adapt with it, and I learned how to live my life. It wasn't going to stop me from doing the things I loved."
United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) of Central Arizona serves children, teens, and adults. You can learn more at ucpofcentralaz.org.
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