Radke overcomes obstacles, teaches others to persevere

HANAMA’ULU – Given the obstacles Ella “Ellie” Radke has faced in her life, lesser folks wouldn’t have been blamed for giving up.

But such an emotion doesn’t exist in Radke’s mindset.

Physical and mental disabilities didn’t deter her from achieving a master’s degree at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa while suffering chronic severe pain, nor from surviving a stressful, agonizing, lengthy and politically charged adoption of a young girl from China.

An accomplished author and artist, she was busy at work as a special-education teacher at King Kaumuali’i Elementary School here when she was honored as the island’s Rehabilitant of the Year at an awards ceremony on O’ahu recently.

The award comes from the state Department of Human Services’ Vocational Rehabilitation & Services for the Blind Division, and Radke, called “Miss Ellie” by her students, was nominated by Laurel Brier, her vocational rehabilitation counselor.

The state agency provided Radke a wide variety of services, including treatment, therapy, transportation, tuition and fees at UH-Manoa, books and educational supplies, assistive technology assessment and devices, assistance with relocation, dental care, guidance and counseling.

Children, Radke said, are her reasons for living, her motivation, whether they be the children with developmental disabilities she works with on weekdays, or Maggie, an orphaned Chinese girl she has adopted.

Radke has endured, and continues to endure, chronic pain associated with severe back disc degeneration and fibromyalgia, a neuromuscular disorder similar to chronic fatigue syndrome.

“I still struggle a lot with the pain,” and on a monthly basis has passing thoughts about giving up.

Those thoughts quickly give way to utter joy. “When there’s someone waiting in the next room with a smile, that makes it easier to get up,” she said of two-year-old daughter Maggie.

Her children at school motivate her as well, she said. “This is a benefit, because I love these kids a lot.”

Her home and work lives demand enormous amounts of patience, she said. “You can’t help but have that for the kids. They have very strong feelings, emotions, wills.”

On the day the reporter visited, students and teachers were making cupcakes. Tedium is never part of the classroom equation. “My gosh, I’ve got a three-ring circus every day. How can you be bored with that?” she asked.

“I think the kids let you know what they need, if you listen.” A good teacher is attentive, gives students their space, and, probably most important, provides a safe place, she said.

While it’s obvious that the children are what she likes most about her job, it is paperwork she enjoys least about it, she said.

When informed she was named Kaua’i Rehabilitant of the Year, “I just smiled. I do have my difficulties at school, like anybody else has,” she said. “Anyone else on campus could have been chosen” for the award, she added.

Radke’s master’s degree is in special education from UH, specializing in teaching the very young with severe, profound developmental disabilities. One of her current students was the 2002 Easter Seals poster child.

She explored the possibility of returning to school to get her advanced degree as a way to generate income sufficient to support her dream of adopting Maggie. As an artist and writer, she didn’t have the kind of regular income necessary to support a daughter, she said.

Radke has produced an art show including writings by local children who suffered from child abuse, and co-wrote with fellow Koloa resident Anne E. O’Malley “The Miracle of ‘Iniki,” about transformations brought about as a result of the 1992 hurricane.

A maker and seller of unique dolls, Radke has also written a book, “Bringing Maggie Home,” about the journey of adopting a young girl from China. Maggie’s birth mother, Radke explained, made a “loving choice” to abandon Maggie, giving her up for adoption.

In China, one in four of all newborn females disappear, as the government’s one-child rule places high priority on bearing male children. Therefore, females come into the world largely unwanted, and are oftentimes killed at birth, Radke said.

The book, like most everything else in her life, is for Maggie, Radke said.

As she was not able to attend the Honolulu awards ceremony, Radke penned an acceptance letter Brier read at the ceremony. The words in the letter came to Radke after she meditated over a visual image planted by watching “Oprah.” The subject was what you’ll be doing at age 99, on your last day on earth.

She had consecutive dreams of creating art with an eight-year-old girl, Radke was “bent and crippled but happy” in the dreams, and wondered who that girl was, as she isn’t sure if she’ll have grandchildren or great grandchildren.

In the letter, she thanks the state agency for giving her “the gift of life,” helping her finish her education and secure a job she really loves.

“It’s all based on Maggie’s adoption,” she concluded.

Radke is one of nine people across the state named Rehabilitant of the Year.

Employers of the Year honored at the O’ahu ceremony included Theo-Davies Food Group (for its Taco Bell restaurants), and Kazi Foods Corp., doing business as Kentucky Fried Chicken.

A ceremony for the Kaua’i honorees, including employers of the year, is planned sometime in March.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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