Special Olympics Michigan athlete and International Health Messenger, Kayla Cornell is committed to leading a healthy lifestyle. What started as a promise to herself has now developed into a lifelong passion. A passion the athlete advocate had the opportunity to share when invited to the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this September. The last time the President of the United States convened a conference on this topic was more than 50 years ago when Special Olympics was newly founded.
The historic moment wasn’t lost on Cornell. “I was in the same room as him,” Cornell said, referring to United States President Joe Biden. “It was pretty neat to listen to Biden talk about the needs we need to meet. So many people go hungry. There is no reason people should go hungry, we have all the resources.”
Cornell was one of 500 attendees at the conference in our nation’s capital, hand-picked by Special Olympics International to represent an underserved population – those individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID).
“I want to make sure athletes don’t need to struggle because there is no one to help them,” Cornell said. “I understand from their level.”
Cornell, alongside Special Olympics Minnesota Health Messenger Kayte Barton, met in small groups with members of Congress, federal civil servants, representatives of the private sector, and leading civil society organizations.
“I think my biggest takeaway was mental health,” Cornell said of her time in Washington D.C. “I realized how much your mental health is important. I want to advocate to health providers if a therapist won’t take our insurance.”
Now a nine-sport Special Olympics Michigan athlete, Cornell was first introduced to Special Olympics on the ski slopes in seventh grade. It was during her time with teammates that Cornell found the confidence to push through the uncomfortable.
“No matter how many people push me down, shove me down, told me I wasn’t going to make it, I kept pushing myself,” Cornell said. “I knew I had more in me to give. I knew I had more in me to give. So I never give up.”
She began sharing her own health message in 2019. Educating herself, Cornell has lost more than 40-pounds and learned the physical and emotional value behind a balanced diet. It was her own takeaway that inspired her to empower her peers.
“I teach a cooking class for Special Olympics Michigan,” Cornell explained her commitment to nutrition. “It’s a seven-week class that can be done in person or over Zoom. I found most athletes don’t have an understanding of basic nutrition or didn’t know how to cook food. I am enrolled in college right now to become a dietician.”
Cornell is now encouraging other SOMI athletes to look into the Health Messenger program. “You can go to doctors' offices or talk to health professionals and talk to them about how they can understand our disabilities more, and how they can work with us,” she explained. “Some athletes lead exercises at practices, I have my cooking class, there are multiple things you can do to get involved as a Health Messenger. That’s how I found my passion and what I love to do. I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t selected (in the Healthy Messenger program).”
Cornell remains modest about her time on the grounds at the White House. “It’s not about me,” she said. “I will continue to fight for the athletes.” The networking opportunity is only opening more doors for the advocate, determined to make a difference for those with ID. She plans to continue conversations with Congress and Michigan lawmakers in an effort to educate the need for better health services.
Her advice to her Special Olympics Michigan peers: “Don’t give up. No matter what you’ve been through, keep going, that is the biggest thing you want to do. Don’t let someone’s words tell you that you are different, don’t let them take your shine away. Keep being the amazing athlete you are, just keep going.
Cornell currently lives in Grand Rapids and enjoys working as a ski coach part-time at the YMCA and spending time with her family.