Yough High School senior diagnosed with congenital disorder celebrates graduation with walk
Walking across the stage to receive her diploma at Yough High School's graduation ceremony on Friday meant the world to Ashley Firestone.
The 18-year-old is 39 inches tall and has had a kidney transplant and two hip reconstruction surgeries, the latest in November.
Firestone, a National Honor Society member and art award recipient, was diagnosed with Schimke immuno-osseous dysplasia when she was 4.
The congenital disorder is a multi-symptom disease that requires her to take more than 35 pills every day. There were only four or five children living with the disease in the world when she was born, her mother said.
Firestone uses a motorized wheelchair to navigate most of the time and has a walker that has helped since her last surgery, but her steps across the aluminum stage at Cougar Mountain were important to her.
“It's something I wanted to walk for because it's a special occasion,” she said.
Her mother, Lori Tkach, said that as she has watched Ashley grow up and endure everything her body has gone through, it has helped give her perspective.
“You've been through more than the average student, and to go through all that and to do all this is something spectacular,” Tkach said. “Some days she keeps me going.”
Because of the disease's effect on her immune system, Firestone was forced to have school lessons in her family's South Huntingdon home rather than attend Yough, but the district has supplied teachers since she was young.
Patricia Hufford of Herminie taught Firestone high school courses using online lessons and video projects, but she excelled the most at art, winning Yough's Jessica Bigi Award for the Arts.
“She writes stories, poetry, and her artwork is just unbelievable,” Hufford said.
Firestone uses a digital art pad and software to not only draw landscapes of fog-covered cities and ancient forests in what she calls “semi-realism,” but also writes backstories for her waifish, mysterious anime-style characters.
Tkach said her daughter did not inherit any artistic talent from her.
“It comes naturally to her. She could just sit down and draw a portrait,” Tkach said. “Me, I can't even draw a circle.”
The arts award came as a surprise, but will help encourage Firestone to continue to use her creativity, she said.
“I've come a long way with my art,” Firestone said. “It keeps getting better and better, and (the award is) the icing on the cake.”
Her art, posted online not only as finished products but in time-lapse videos while in progress, has helped her reach out and make friends from all over the world.
Because she often can't travel outside, Firestone has taken to social media sites, especially Tumblr, to connect.
She said she planned to post video of Friday's graduation ceremony for her friends in France and Germany as soon as she could.
“I think they'll be happy about it, too, because they've always supported me,” Firestone said.
Even though art-related career fields appealed to her, Firestone will use a Presidential Scholarship to Westmoreland County Community College to study psychology in the fall.
“I've just met a lot of people who have really inspired me to want to do it,” she said, adding that she would like to support teenagers and children who are bullied or depressed. “I want to try and help them get through that.”
Hufford said Firestone uses her big personality to fuel her positive attitude.
“She's absolutely dynamite,” her teacher said. “She is one to discuss. ... She does not stay quiet, and she's very opinionated.”
Firestone said she is grateful for her mother, who taught her to keep moving forward despite her medical condition.
“When life knocks you down, you say, ‘I'll push you down twice as hard,' ” Firestone said.
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.