- Associated Press - Monday, June 26, 2017

SPRING HOPE, N.C. (AP) - One local woman has turned the challenges of her life into a way to serve others.

Spring Hope native Jesse Sykes, 26, graduated last month from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in clinical rehabilitation and mental health. Her master’s thesis dealt with the impact of cerebral-palsy on care-givers during the transition from adolescent to adulthood.

At first glance, this looks like a fairly typical story of intelligent young woman succeeding in a challenging and beneficial field. But Sykes is far from typical. She has dealt with the challenges of cerebral palsy since birth and now hopes to parlay that lifetime of experience into way to help others deal with challenges in their own lives.

Sykes credits her success so far to family support and her own perseverance.

“If you tell me I can’t do something, I have to prove I can,” Sykes said. “This is the way I was brought up. My parents always told me that the only thing I can’t do is the thing I tell myself I can’t do. I was tempted to quit at times, but a lot of people in my family and at Chapel Hill believed in me, and that kept me going.”

Sykes, who graduated from Nash-Rocky Mount Early College High School in 2010, went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill before heading to graduate school. However, tragedy struck her as she began her college career. Her mother, Donna Sykes, died accidentally while she was staying in her daughter’s dorm room, helping her prepare for the new chapter in her life.

However, Sykes sees all of these life events as ways to make her more empathetic to others. After studying psychology as an undergrad, Sykes wanted to focus on a master’s degree that would give her more skills to help others. Over the past few months, she has been working at the accessibility office at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her work there has taught her that many people face a variety of challenges in their lives.

“During my internship, I learned that a lot of students faced challenges. Some were not aware of the resources that are available. Others were afraid to ask for help for fear of being looked down upon,” Sykes said.

Sykes said she likes solving problems for people who are disabled or facing other challenges in their lives.

“I love hearing them say ‘Thank you.’ Most people are really grateful for the help,” Sykes said.

Even though Sykes‘ challenges are obvious to most people who meet her, her sweet and open spirit is apparent as well. Sykes has a more positive attitude toward life than most people who have endured far fewer struggles in their lives. In fact, Sykes said she feels that people who face challenges that are not as obvious fare worse in life.

“I think that people with disabilities that are not obvious are treated worse,” Sykes said. “There seems to be sort of a stigma there,”

For now, Sykes is back home in Spring Hope while she looks for job that will allow her to put her considerable skills to work. However, even that is challenge, Sykes said.

“I finding it hard to slow down,” Sykes said.

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