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BYU student at 3-foot-9 lives a large life

Published: Friday, May 11 2012 5:54 p.m. MDT

BYU student Kelsey Morasco and other students practice their BYU Luau 2012 dance routine in Provo Feb. 25, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco and other students practice their BYU Luau 2012 dance routine in Provo Feb. 25, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

PROVO — A huge voice booms from the front row during the men's volleyball tournament at BYU.

The same huge voice rallies friends at dance competitions and, at one time, in the residence halls as she gathered new students from their rooms for announcements and weekly prayer.

It is hard to believe that the thunderous sound bellies from a 3-foot, 9-inch university senior.

"I forget sometimes that I am small," Kelsey Morasco said.

And in all respects, the 21-year-old California native isn't small.

Morasco has a very rare genetic condition, one that afflicts less than 1 in a million individuals around the world. It is called spondylometaphyseal dysplasia Kozlowski syndrome, a form of short-trunk dwarfism. Despite the obvious complications, she has never let it get her down.

BYU student Kelsey Morasco and friend  Ashley Mauger drive home after class in Provo  Feb 25, 2012.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco and friend Ashley Mauger drive home after class in Provo Feb 25, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"I was made this way and this is who I am," she said, adding that her older sister, Carli, is also a dwarf. "I wouldn't be the person I am if I was tall."

She's developed a keen sense of ingenuity, often having to find clever ways of doing things in an average-size world.

"She doesn't let anything stop her. She used to climb counters faster than I could see her," said her mother, Pam Morasco. "I'd turn around and she would already be up on the counter."

Morasco hauls her seemingly extra-large textbooks across campus sometimes using a wheeled backpack. She has retrofitted her vehicle to include a thick foam booster seat, a wooden box to set her feet on and extended pedals that she can reach. She also has several stools throughout her apartment to help her reach things, but she's been known to be creative, using whatever she can get her hands on to get the job done.

BYU student Kelsey Morasco jumps on the bed with roommates Ashley Mauger, Lindsey Hunt and Breanna Hutchings  in their apartment  in Provo April 29, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco jumps on the bed with roommates Ashley Mauger, Lindsey Hunt and Breanna Hutchings in their apartment in Provo April 29, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

When her friends gather in the kitchen, tiny Morasco takes a seat on the counter. In the classroom, she sits on books or uses an adjustable-height chair to take notes or run the sewing machine in home economics classes.

She laughed when the swag bag she obtained at last year's Little People of America conference contained a reacher tool to help her grab items at higher levels.

"Why would I need a reacher, I just climb on the counter anyways," she said. "I have a shorter torso and longer limbs, but other than that, I'm basically normal."

Walking across campus, Morasco said she occasionally attracts stares. But among those looks are always a few friendly faces.

"I got teased a lot as a kid, but I always had really good friends who stood up for me," she added.

BYU student Kelsey Morasco eats dinner with roommate Ashley Mauger in their apartment  in Provo April 29, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco eats dinner with roommate Ashley Mauger in their apartment in Provo April 29, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The youngest of four kids, Morasco was excused from gym class in grade school because of her size, but fulfilled the credit with dance classes, something she still enjoys.

"I trip over her when I don't see her there and she'd get injured by other people," her mother said. "It wouldn't be their fault, but that's just what would happen and we wanted to keep her safe. She is just so small."

As a child, Morasco had multiple surgeries, which is common for people with dwarfism. She has had ribs removed, her spine fused, both legs surgically straightened and a titanium rod — custom-made for her size — placed in her back. Her father, a physical therapist, designed a removable brace for her to use at school.

"I knew I was different from a long time ago," she said. "I was smaller and I had all these surgeries that other kids weren't having."

BYU student Kelsey Morasco smiles as she talks with a fellow student on campus in Provo Feb. 15, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco smiles as she talks with a fellow student on campus in Provo Feb. 15, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

But like any excited freshman, Morasco jumped into college and relished being on her own. She missed her family and home and for the first time, "realized how different I was. Here I was in this much bigger world," she said.

Despite the differences with her peers, which now equate to a couple feet in height, Morasco began to find little pieces of Southern California throughout the vast Provo campus, including the warm sunshine that poured in through the windows on the fourth floor of the Joseph F. Smith Building.

"I'm a lizard. I love the sun, it's like my favorite," she said. She also made sure to call home at least once each week, which her mother appreciates.

It wasn't long before Morasco met people from her hometown, got involved in a dance group and while keeping up with homework, was able to maintain a reality TV habit she started with her father years ago — watching every season of "Survivor."

BYU student Kelsey Morasco puts away her sewing supplies after class in Provo Feb. 23, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco puts away her sewing supplies after class in Provo Feb. 23, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Morasco considers herself lucky to have lived with a disagreeable roommate during a portion of her education and even credits the experience for making her more outgoing and "willing to take on more challenges."

"Even though I hated living there, I'm kind of glad that I did because I've become a stronger person from it," she said. "I know I'm never going to treat someone like that, that's for sure."

The roommate had apparently decided one day not to like her, a night-and-day difference that made life hard for a while.

Morasco was hurt and a little sad at first, but then stepped out to find new friends and discovered a whole lot more. There's a whole world out there, she said, and she wasn't going to let one person get her down.

In addition to her inborn enthusiasm for life, Morasco has a huge heart and big dreams. Like many other young adults at BYU, she is contemplating serving a proselytizing mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as someday planning a wedding and raising a family.

BYU student Kelsey Morasco and other students perform their BYU Luau 2012 dance routine in Provo March 27, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco and other students perform their BYU Luau 2012 dance routine in Provo March 27, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"I also want to have a really good career that I can have for a long time," she said. "It is always nice to be working toward something."

Education first, Morasco is set to graduate from college in August with a degree in family studies. Before coming to college, she didn't really know how to cook or sew, so she believes the classes involved in her major have helped her become a more well-rounded person. Her favorite class, however, was human development and learning about the psychology of growing up.

She will obtain her degree after four years of schooling, filling in with summer classes this year. But Morasco is anxious about leaving campus and the many friends she has grown to love.

A dream come true would give her the opportunity to work at a floral shop in Provo this fall, but those plans haven't solidified just yet. Contrarily, the young woman has a boyfriend of almost a year in California, who keeps tugging on her heart strings.

BYU student Kelsey Morasco checks text messages between classes in Provo Feb. 15, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco checks text messages between classes in Provo Feb. 15, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The two met in a young adult ward in California, when Morasco was home for a visit last year. "He saw me and said, 'I have to have that,'" she said. "He loves everything about me. He doesn't care that I'm small, he doesn't care that there's going to be problems in the future if we do have any kids. He just says we'll get through them."

"I've never found another guy who loves me as much as he does and sees past my height," Morasco added. Her boyfriend, she said, is "a tall person," but she guesses he's about 5 feet, 5 inches tall.

In a way, Morasco said her experience at BYU has been much like that of the close-knit community where she grew up. In Valley Center, Calif., Morasco said "everybody was understanding and you knew everybody." It helped, too, that her sister paved the way, giving those in town a glimpse at the life of a little person four years before she came along.

BYU student Kelsey Morasco eats with roommates Ashley Mauger, Lindsey Hunt and Breanna Hutchings in their apartment in Provo April 29, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco eats with roommates Ashley Mauger, Lindsey Hunt and Breanna Hutchings in their apartment in Provo April 29, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"We're not like normal dwarfs," Morasco said, adding that her sister is taller than her and has a different form of dwarfism. "It's rare for two tall people to have a dwarf child and really rare to have two dwarf children. And then to have two dwarf children with two completely different types of dwarfism."

But Dr. David Viskochil, a geneticist at the University of Utah, said the incidence of dwarfism "is relatively high as far as these rare conditions go." He said dwarfism is sporadic and usually parents don't have it, but can pass it to their children. Dwarf women can bear their own children, but with potential complications.

"Usually dwarfs tend not to be proportionate in their body. They may have larger heads … and shorter fingers," he said. At times it isn't immediately known whether dwarfism is present at birth.

BYU student Kelsey Morasco gets some help moving in from roommates Ashley Mauger and Lindsey Hunt  in their apartment  in Provo April 29, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco gets some help moving in from roommates Ashley Mauger and Lindsey Hunt in their apartment in Provo April 29, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"But they can live a full life," Viskochil said. "They have their challenges, of course, most of which are orthopedic, but they can go on to be very successful. Successful social adaptation plays an important role in their ultimate success and happiness."

Doctors noticed a difference in Morasco's bone growth during a sonogram before she was born. It was years before the family would know what type of dwarfism she had, as it was always thought the two girls had the same.

"We didn't treat them any different than our other kids," said Pam Morasco. "And knowing what we did about our genes, we wouldn't have not had children. That's just not what we believe."

And she said neither of the other two kids have been genetically tested because it wouldn't likely preclude them from having families as well.

BYU student Kelsey Morasco walks to class on campus in Provo Feb. 15, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco walks to class on campus in Provo Feb. 15, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Morasco's mother said she has always worried about her frail daughter, adding, "I just think the angels watch over her."

"It was a challenge to watch her go through all those surgeries, but she handled them so well," Pam Morasco said. "She remembers the dates and scars from each of them, but I tend to put them out of my head. She says those scars give her character."

As a mother, she only wants the best for her children. She wants others to see what she sees in them. 

"I will always look out for the underdog because I know what it feels like," Pam Morasco said.

And just as Morasco was the only little person on campus after her sister graduated a couple of years ago, she knows she'll face additional challenges in life, including possible difficulties with her joints and in pregnancy. She may never be able to bear children.

BYU student Kelsey Morasco watches TV in their front room fort with roommates Ashley Mauger, Lindsey Hunt and Breanna Hutchings in their apartment in Provo April 29, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco watches TV in their front room fort with roommates Ashley Mauger, Lindsey Hunt and Breanna Hutchings in their apartment in Provo April 29, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"We believe in the scripture that says she is going to have that perfect body someday, and she believes it, too," Pam Morasco said.

Growing up, Morasco developed an "I'm normal, I'm normal, I'm normal" attitude, and she feels that has made all the difference in her life so far.

"I'm a person. I'm just normal. Everybody is always understanding and they see I am special and that I'm also normal," she said. "I'm just like everybody else. I'm just mini-sized."

And she basks in the various rarities of her identity. For example, Morasco is able to shop in the girls' section at most stores. She picked up a new bathing suit for just $16 last month, well below what it would cost a full-grown woman. She has even found a few pairs of fancy, high-heeled shoes in a youth size 13.

BYU student Kelsey Morasco and other students practice their BYU Luau 2012 dance routine in Provo  Feb. 25, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) BYU student Kelsey Morasco and other students practice their BYU Luau 2012 dance routine in Provo Feb. 25, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The dainty-looking, brown-eyed gal is rarely ever reserved. She loves sports and scrambles to get a student pass for access to games before lining up her class schedule each semester. But she can call herself a "girly-girl."

"I'm not afraid to take somebody down if they mess with me, but I do love getting dressed up and being all girly," Morasco said. "I may be little, but I got some fire."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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