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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Brittaney Mitchell, left, helps her friend Megan Rees talk on a cell phone at Riverton High. Rees also likes text messaging.

RIVERTON — Megan Rees might be the most sought-after student at Riverton High.

She's been featured on The Early Show segment "Saturday Spotlight" on CBS.

Peers voted her homecoming queen.

People nationwide write her letters.

Colleges and universities recruit her.

Adults seek to commission her paintings.

First lady Mary Kaye Huntsman has made her a teen-mentoring ambassador.

These accomplishments are impressive for any high school student.

But 17-year-old Rees is not your typical girl.

Rees has cerebral palsy. But her abilities shine through her disability. Those who know her say that sets an example for others, able-bodied and disabled alike, to follow.

"I think she's made an awareness in the school itself, and probably in the community, that just because someone's in a wheelchair, their mental capacity is not diminished at all. She's very smart, very bright, very cheerful," said Stephanie Galley, one of Rees' special education aides at Riverton High.

"I think that gives (students with disabilities) courage. I know the other kids at the school look up to her. They look at Megan and realize, if she can do it, I can do it. They realize it's not hopeless, you don't have to give up, and whatever problems or things you run into on a day-to-day basis, nothing can come close to what she has to go through."

Cerebral palsy is a nonprogressive abnormality of the part of the brain that controls muscle tone, affecting a person's movements and ability to maintain balance and posture, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.

Symptoms vary. Some might not be able to walk or speak and need lifelong care, whereas a person with mild cerebral palsy might walk awkwardly but not need special help.

The diagnosis for the youngest of George and Vonna Rees' three children was difficult, her father said.

"The first years, we lived in denial, thinking she would grow out of it," he said, adding the family eventually moved from a multi-level house in Park City to a wheelchair-accessible one in Riverton.

"We realized . . . she wasn't going to get better. She was going to adapt."

And adapt she did — beyond expectations.

Doctors used to say Rees would never talk.

But when a special communication computer became more frustration than help, Rees says she decided she would learn to speak.

She no longer needs a speech therapist, Riverton High special education aide Nina Chapman said.

"She really enjoys achieving and striving for goals that, for her, may be hard," Chapman said. "We don't have to push. We're just the hands that help her move along."

Chapman assists Rees with school's physical tasks, such as note-taking. On a recent December morning, she also taped to a desk the watercolor painting Rees — with a brush clenched between her teeth — worked to complete.

Rees has little use of her right hand, but fairly good control of at least one digit on her left. She uses it to text message friends — "That's my hobby right now," she says — uses a computer keyboard and mouse, and is taking desktop publishing and, next semester, Web design.

But Rees has good control of her head. So when an adapted, hand-held paintbrush didn't work well in class, Rees tried her teeth. When the wood of her brushes splintered, a dentist treated them to withstand the wear.

Today, Rees gracefully applies paint to the brush tip, then carries it to her canvas — in one class in late December, a budding watercolor of a blooming clematis. She gently strokes the brush along the flower's outline, creating smooth, sweeping lines — the same as she's done to transform sketches into oil paintings of her family, landscapes, and even a self-portrait, hanging in a school commons area.

Rees' artistic talents intrigued orthopedic surgeon Dr. Peter Stevens, who commissioned a portrait of his golden, mixed-breed dog, Diggity. The Primary Children's Medical Center surgeon, who has known Rees since she was 2 years old and performed surgeries on her legs so she can more easily transfer from her wheelchair and perhaps walk short distances, planned to give the portrait to his wife for Christmas.

"(Megan) has not only overcome the physical disability but excelled in a way nobody would have predicted. Not only is she bright, but she is painting with her mouth, which I find extraordinary," Stevens said. "I do some painting and I know I couldn't do it with my mouth; I can barely do it with my hands."

Stevens is among a half-dozen commissioning requests Rees has received. She's thinking of accepting only one other, from Riverton High football coach Mike Miller, whom she met en route to his job interview at the school. They've been pals since.

"She does things I can't do," Miller said. "She achieves above her supposed limitations. I don't see her as limited. . . . I think in (some) areas, she's gifted."

Rees is in AP art class. She always completes her homework for that, and every other class, on time, Chapman said. She maintains a 3.9 grade point average.

But perhaps more than academics, Rees is known for how she makes people feel. She has a bright smile for everyone she meets, and an even warmer one for those she knows.

"She's the kind of kid you wish your kids to be," said art teacher Robyn Harris. "She thinks of others."

"She's always had this outlook on life. I'd have the worst day, and see that smile and say, 'I have no problems.' She's my hero," said her father. "She'll humble you real fast."

"She's funny. She's smart. I think she truly motivates students to try their best," aide Chapman said. "If they've had contact with her, they can't say, 'I can't do this,' because they've seen her do it."

"I think she's awesome," said friend Brittaney Mitchell. "She's always willing to listen. Every time I put myself down, she tells me I can do it . . . over and over."

Rees' spirit recently spread through the school community.

Last fall, they nominated her for homecoming queen — a title she won, some say, by no close vote. Even other candidates for the honor reportedly asked to bow out when they heard Rees was in the running.

"It was the buzz around the school," coach Miller said. "It overshadowed the game."

The moment was a highlight for Rees, too.

"School is the best (where) students would do that kind of thing for me," Rees said, recalling how the Homecoming king lifted her from her wheelchair and whirled her around the dance floor. Later, she said, "I kind of teared up because I was so happy."

Rees' homecoming story was featured on The Early Show on CBS.

First lady Huntsman picked Rees up as an ambassador for her Power in You program, where inspiring student mentors assist younger students who are struggling.

"The minute I met her I was taken with her," Huntsman said of Rees.

"You don't see a disability in her; you see this beautiful face, just shining," she said. "She has taught me so much. I watch her, and you look at what she's going through, and I've never seen someone so happy and radiate the way she does, always. Life is not easy for her, but she loves life. She is the queen of everyone's hearts."

Colleges from Utah and Idaho have been recruiting her for art programs, and she took classes on scholarship at a Sugar House art center. She says she might pursue a career in computers or painting and plans to start her studies at Salt Lake Community College and finish at the University of Utah.

Whatever her path, Rees' teachers and friends know she will be successful.

So does Rees.

"Nothing will stop me," Rees says with her characteristic smile. "I believe in myself. . . . I never look down on myself . . . never give up."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com