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From Obstacles to Opportunity

Nothing—not even suffering from two brain tumors and a stroke—is going to stop 2008 Coca-Cola Scholar Kelsey Tainsh from fulfilling her dreams.

And as a motivational speaker, she’s determined to help others do the same.

“Our hardest obstacles and challenges in life have the most rewarding opportunities, but not if we give up,” Kelsey says. “I wouldn’t trade having a brain tumor or a stroke for anything because of what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown.”

Now brain tumor- and stroke-free for seven years, Kelsey is doing an extended internship at Coca-Cola and working as a motivational speaker every chance she gets.

Recently, she was one of the youth program keynote speakers at the 2013 National Speakers Association Convention in Philadelphia. Her upcoming gigs include speaking at the Florida Virtual School Conference in September and the National Orientation Directors Association 2013 Annual Conference in November.

Kelsey lived a normal, carefree life in Winter Park, Florida, with her parents, two sisters (they’re triplets), and older brother and sister (who are twins) until the age of 5, when she started to bump into walls and doors, constantly rubbed her eyes, and always wanted to be held. Numerous doctors told Kelsey’s parents she was fine, but they demanded an MRI, which revealed a large brain tumor.

She was rushed into surgery two days later and spent the summer undergoing radiation treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital “It’s not a hospital. It’s a playground for kids. It’s a magical place,” Kelsey recalls.

PictureAfter a summer of radiation treatment, life went back to normal. For 10 years, Kelsey thrived and took advantage of every opportunity that came her way. To give back to the Make-A-Wish Foundation for everything they did for her while she was sick, she helped them raise more than $250,000 in their Stories of Light Campaign—and, as an 11-year-old, she landed her first speaking gig with the organization.

Kelsey also started Pet-a-Pup, an organization that gives children who are hospitalized a chance to play with puppies, and began traveling on medical mission trips with Florida Hospital SHARES.

She even spent some time in Los Angeles, where she landed roles in a variety of television shows (Desperate Housewives, Gilmore Girls) and films (Rumor Has It, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector).

In her spare time, Kelsey excelled in athletics. By the time she was 13, she was ranked second nationally and third in the world in girls’ wakeboarding. In high school, she switched to lightweight rowing and helped her team win a state championship.

Around that time, though, Kelsey started to have seizures and migraines. An MRI revealed that the brain tumor was back in the same place it had been 10 years earlier. After Kelsey’s tenth grade year, she went back to Boston for surgery.

Only this time, things didn’t go as smoothly. Some time during or after the surgery, Kelsey had a stroke that left her paralyzed on the right side of her body.

After a week in intensive care, Kelsey began the long road to recovery. When she started back to school the next fall, she had to use a wheelchair. She took some classes at Winter Park High and the rest online from Florida Virtual School.

“Going back to school was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my entire life,” Kelsey says.

“Our hardest obstacles and challenges in life have the most rewarding opportunities, but not if we give up. I wouldn’t trade having a brain tumor or a stroke for anything because of what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown.”

Thanks in large part to an intensive physical therapy program called Beyond Therapy that required Kelsey and her mom to travel from Orlando to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta and back (a seven-hour drive each way) twice a week, Kelsey was able to move from wheelchair to walker to cane before finally being able to walk on her own. Now she can swim, row, and even surf.

After high school, with the assistance of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, Kelsey attended University of Florida. In 2013, she graduated with high honors and a degree in Recreation and Event Management.

“The Coca-Cola Scholarship means so much to me because Coca-Cola believed in me when many other people weren’t sure of my future,” she says. (You can read more about what Kelsey thinks about being a Coke Scholar on the Coca-Cola Company website.)

Kelsey has come a long way from the days of relearning how to tie her shoes, brush her teeth, and take a shower. She’s particularly proud of the way she’s been able to turn her life’s greatest obstacles into opportunities and help others.

“Successful people in life don’t say ‘I can’t,’” Kelsey says. “They say, ‘I can, I just don’t know how yet’ or ‘I can, I don’t know how, but I’ll figure it out.’ With that attitude I believe we can do anything.”

Learn more about Kelsey and her work as a motivational speaker at her website:

September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. To learn more, please visit the American Childhood Cancer Organization website or the pediatric oncology section of your local children’s hospital site.

By Julie (Collins) Bates, a 2001 Coca-Cola Scholar and editor of Quest. She is an English Studies doctoral student at Illinois State University and a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant.