When Holli Bender was 22 years old and finishing her final semester of classes at Western Kentucky University, she was in a devastating car accident that broke bones from her collar bone to her ankle, including her back. When Bender was healthy enough, she finished her degree by student teaching at Cravens Elementary. However, a year and a half after the accident, a series of strokes in her spinal cord gradually left her legs paralyzed and required her to use a wheelchair full-time.
For the last 16 years, Bender has volunteered at her church, in the school system as a tutor and for organizations like CareNet and Hospice of Western Kentucky. However, when a friend told Bender that Owensboro Public Schools needed substitute teachers, Bender decided to attend the substitute meeting held by the district and went through the necessary steps to be on the sub list.
This past January, she embarked on a new journey in the Owensboro Public Schools taking her back to the classroom, including Cravens where she did her student teaching.
Bender likes having the opportunity to choose the days that she substitutes and the diversity of ages and subjects within each job.
“I love the spontaneity of not knowing what I’m going to do,” Bender said.
Prior to her first job at a school, she lets them knows that she’s in a wheelchair.
“I always hope for the best and prepare for the worst. So far, it has been awesome. It’s all been so convenient,” Bender said.
In each classroom where Bender substitutes, she allows a block of time for students to ask her questions, prefacing that they can be about any topic.
“I want them to be open with me and see that I’m normal,” she said. “At first they’re kind of shy about it, so I tell them that 16 years ago, I broke my back.”
Telling the story of her accident helps the students understand why she is in a wheelchair, she said.
“How do you not address the elephant in the room?” Bender said with a laugh. “I tell my students that my wheels are my legs. For the kids who have little brothers and sisters, I tell them that this is my stroller. It’s how I get around.”
At one school, students in a fourth grade class asked Bender to sit with them because they told her there was a step to get in the teacher’s lounge.
“The kids have just been great. They do crack me up,” she said. “I get asked a lot, ‘well, who drives you?’ I drive myself!”
One group of students was so surprised by her answer that they asked to see her van.
“They walked up into my van and were checking out my hand controls. Mind blown,” Bender said.
Bender doesn’t have a favorite age of students to teach, rather, she said that every age is her favorite.
“When I’m in elementary school, they’re my favorite, [but] this week, I’ve been in middle school, so they’re my favorite right now,” Bender said. “It’s crazy to get hugs and high fives from middle schoolers.”
The students at the middle school love having her so much, they seek her out and ask if she will sub for their classes the next day, she said.
“I love the thought of having a new adventure and new group every day.”