- Associated Press - Sunday, June 22, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - AnnaMaria Kiaresh does not consider herself a hero, nor does she consider herself to have done something extraordinary.

But if it helps anyone to use her difficult journey for motivation, she’s OK with that.

“If I can be your inspiration, I’ll be your inspiration. Even if I can just be a model to let you know it can be done. It wasn’t an easy journey for me. But just don’t give up. Don’t give up,” Kiaresh said in a recent interview in the moot courtroom at Western New England University School of Law.

It was June 15, 2003, when the then-17-year-old Kiaresh was riding her bicycle in Forest Park and had a bad fall.

Since that day she has been paralyzed from the chest down. In an interview soon after the accident, she talked of her goal of becoming a lawyer for a corporation.

And now, 11 extremely difficult years later, she is just that.

Kiaresh, 28, graduated from the law school this spring. She has already been hired as in house associate counsel for Farm Credit Financial Partners in Agawam, a company where she did an internship last year. She starts a week after she takes the Massachusetts and Connecticut bar exams this summer.

“It’s a great environment and I’m so lucky,” she said about the new job.

Kiaresh has struggled hard to maintain as much independence as possible. She has struggled with sometimes needing to accept assistance. Most of all she wants to be viewed like everyone else.

Among the questions she said she gets are: “Why do you smile so much? Don’t you just want to say f… everything, be in bed and be miserable?”

Said Kiaresh, “I’m like ‘absolutely not.’ From the second I fell and my mom had gotten the phone call from my cousin - because they live right around the corner in Forest Park - and I heard my mom’s voice screaming as I was getting in the ambulance and I knew I couldn’t feel my legs, I had to automatically click in my head ‘OK focus, because if anything, you’re going to kill your mom and your family with you.’ “

Kiaresh lives with her mother, Maria Kiaresh, and older brother, Advein Kiaresh, in Springfield.

Her younger brother Shahein Kiaresh missed her graduation because he was teaching in Turkey for a year.

Her father, Hamid Kiaresh, who she said is a huge part of her life, missed the graduation because he had to be with his ailing father in Iran.

But family was not in short supply at the graduation ceremony. Her mom, her brother Advein, 10 aunts, four cousins and her uncles attended.

“Technically you’re not supposed to clap and scream,” she said. “You’re supposed to do that all at the end. There are some families that still did it anyways, but mine are Italian and Persian, they don’t care. They think they own the facility - they were so loud, oh my God,”

“And they were all crying. I had a few of my aunts and my mom that were standing literally in front of the stage just in tears and I’m trying to hold back my tears.

“Because for me it’s not just a milestone that I reached in my life. I look at it like I did it for my mom as well. My dad is educated, my mom is an Italian immigrant. She came here to work. So she always instilled in us education first, education first,” Kiaresh said.

When Kiaresh was an undergraduate at Western New England University, she had three surgeries.

When she finished her undergraduate degree, she had another operation, and then couldn’t start law school right away.

Seven months after her accident, she started college in January 2004.

Kiaresh explained the accident severed her spine.

“They fused it from the initial injury down to T7. In 2005, from the metal rubbing on T8, it deteriorated the bone, so it pushed out half of the rod, so they fused down to T9,” she said.

Then her spine started curving. Because Kariesh is paralyzed from the chest down, in order to balance herself in the chair she would bend forward a lot.

“Now I can’t do it because my spine is so straight,” she said. “In 2011 at Massachusetts General Hospital, they fused me from the front and the back, and in the middle of my spine I have a metal cage. I am metaled up so much it’s not even funny. That operation took 17½ hours.”

Because Kiaresh can’t lean forward, it makes it hard to push her chair up steep ramps, she said.

Kiaresh is strong; she does free weights and pull-ups at home. Her favorite exercise is swimming - which she does every day she can - but she had been sidelined from that because of some temporary health problems.

Those temporary health problems meant two hospitalizations her last year of law school, including a 10-day stay which had her in the hospital over this past Christmas and New Year’s Day.

She missed part of the fall semester.

“Thank God for the school and thank God for the faculty, because they were absolutely accommodating. My classes were recorded for me. I could listen to them, take my notes, take my exams in an appropriate setting,” Kiaresh said.

In addition to the internship at her future employer, Kiaresh also did internships with Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis and at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Velis - now retired as a judge - recently wrote her a recommendation letter. “Just to hear his words and how much he thought of me is an honor,” she said.

She said her first year of law school was really difficult.

“Dealing with my disability and side effects of medication it was kind of hard for me,” she said. “I was sitting 16 hours a day, just like literally living in the library.

“After class (I was) going there and doing all my reading and all my assignments and just trying to remember to eat and to remember to do things that I naturally had to do. Always in the wheel chair. I literally lived in the library,” she said.

Professors treated her just like everybody else. “I absolutely appreciate that more than anything because I don’t like being looked at like I’m different,” she said.

“That was tough for me in (undergraduate) college. I remember when I first started I went from being class president - the most popular girl in (high) school - to literally feeling like an alien or a freak of nature coming into the classroom,” Kariesh said.

“I hated coming in late because everyone would just stare at you and then I had people just slam the door in my face, not even hold the door, like not pay attention,” she said. “I mean, it’s not their fault. Most people are not exposed to someone with a disability. I wasn’t. I had to learn just being myself.”

Kariesh is uncomfortable when people put her on too high a pedestal.

“I get that you appreciate the fact that I’ve gone through so much difficulty and I still achieved the goal that I set for myself,” she said. “But there are so many people who have done so much more and are so much more of an inspiration - a story that could really inspire you,” she said. “I feel like mine is just so minuscule compared to others.”

Kariesh got her driver’s license when she was 18, a year and a half after she got hurt.

“When I learned I can drive, I was like, ‘Dad, this is what I want to do.’”

It took her a year to get her license because she had to do at least 16 lessons. She had to drive with instructors on the highway, in bad weather, and in other circumstances.

“That was a little bit of independence, that felt so good,” Kariesh said about getting her license.

Now, when her mother says she has a heavy foot when Kariesh is driving, Kariesh says, “No mom, heavy hand.”

Kariesh is constantly fighting another thing - drowsiness from the medication for the large amount of pain she feels all the time.

Her doctors suggested increasing the medication, but she’d rather deal with the extra pain and not deal with the side effects and the dependency.

Kariesh loves to cook and bake, and finds the kitchen a place for her to relax.

When she begins to talk about issues of accessibility and access for herself and other people with disabilities, she gets passionate. Lately she has been battling insurers to try to get necessary medications.

“If I didn’t have the help that I did - how does someone else deal with it? A lot of people don’t know they can appeal a decision or advocate for themselves,” Kariesh said.

As for accessibility, there are elevators in which it is hard to fit. There are doors that close while she is partially through, resulting in scratches and bruised knuckles.

Kariesh had met so many of her goals, but her next goal is to find a person with whom to share her life and have a family.

“Just finding the right person is the hard part. It’s still a difficult life, and a lot of people can’t hack it. It makes the search for the right person a lot more difficult,” Kariesh said.

It took a long time for Kariesh to go back into Forest Park. She looked at it as a breakthrough. The first time she went back was in her first year of law school when The Color of Law dinner was held there by the Multicultural Law Students Association. She was president of the association.

“I looked at it as that was the end of that part of my life, that miserable tragedy,” she said.

She just thought about how she was returning to Forest Park as a law school student. “I thought it would never happen after I fell,” she said.

Kariesh doesn’t want “the sympathy vote or sympathetic looks.

“I feel like I’m always fighting to show I’m just like you. The only difference is you’re standing and I’m sitting,” she said.

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