Monday, May 27, 2024

Glacier High School senior isn’t ‘waiting on the world to change’

Daily Inter Lake | June 3, 2022 12:00 AM

Throughout her years at Glacier High School, Opal Besaw has found joy and fulfillment in helping others through her thoughtfulness, humor, kindness, determination and writing.

With graduation Saturday, Besaw will begin the next chapter in her life with goals to become a children’s author, social worker and continue her efforts as a disability rights advocate. She’s in her second year serving on the state Office of Public Instruction Special Education Advisory Panel.

“Everyone deserves a chance to have their voices and their ideas heard by someone and I want to be that person for people,” Besaw said.

She graduates with a 4.0 GPA and plans to attend Flathead Valley Community College for a year and then transfer to the University of Montana.

Part of what has shaped her passions and aspirations has been living with cerebral palsy.

“I was born with cerebral palsy, which means the part of my brain that controls my physical movements, and to some extent, cognitive development, although only slightly, was damaged sometime before, during, or after birth,” Besaw said.

“It is my belief that God compensated for my lack of physicality by giving me this brain,” she adds. “By giving me the power to speak up for others and use my voice to make a good change in the world.”

Glacier Librarian Kerrie More has no doubt Besaw will achieve what she sets out to accomplish. She says it comes as no surprise that Besaw would want to become a social worker because she recognizes obstacles in place for people who share her physical struggles and has the personality to influence meaningful change.

“She will have really important beautiful stories to tell,” More said. “I really can’t wait to see the light that Opal shines on the world.”

They both bonded over the book “Stargirl,” by Jerry Spinelli.

“She finds inspiration in the story of a kind, caring, free-spirited girl who goes out of her way to notice and acknowledge other people, always choosing to see the best in them,” More says. “Opal is a real-life Stargirl because she approaches everyone without judgment and has the magical ability to brighten the day of each and every person with whom she interacts.”

FROM A young age, Besaw has been a storyteller. As a child with cerebral palsy, she couldn’t always physically play like her peers. Her imagination, however, was boundless.

“I would sit on the floor and just talk to myself for hours on end and make up stories. So one day, when I was about 8 my mom got the idea to start writing them down and ever since then I have wanted to become a writer,” Besaw said.

She continues to use a scribe but has since added a recorder and text-to-speech software to her writing toolbox and through “a ton of practice” with an occupational therapist, she said her ability to write has increased in speed, fluency and legibility.

“Writing really helps me express all of my emotions and channel the situations that I am in into my characters and it really helps me to feel fulfilled and bring other people fulfillment and joy.

I really feel that’s my purpose in life to make others happy.”

Currently, Besaw is writing a fictional story about a 15-year-old girl who follows bands on tour after experiencing a major loss.

“I think what brought that on was while I was deciding what I wanted to do for college I felt very stuck because my physical circumstances sometimes inhibit what I am able to do and that is a frustrating thing to come to terms with,” Besaw said. “So I think I made a story that she wasn’t running from her problems, but she was running to something that was a little more peaceful for her soul, and I think that is why I channeled that.”

Drawing inspiration from the words of others, she said, one of the most cathartic activities she does is compiling inspirational quotes in a large journal that she reads often.

“It’s cathartic to get out whatever is bad going on in my pain, but it’s also,” she said, pausing. “I need to fuel [myself] with more good things and then I can continue to write.”

Through a Student Voice 2020-21 journalism fellowship, Besaw was also able to highlight student issues and important topics.

“I wrote pieces on the inclusivity of differently-abled people and their typically developing peers. I also wrote about the impact of these early-out Wednesdays,” she said, which came out of the response to the Covid pandemic. “One of the most powerful pieces I had the privilege of writing was about the student homelessness problem in the valley.”

“I consider myself to be very lucky because I am a person in some of those marginalized populations, but I also have been given the voice to speak up for others,” she said.

Currently, Besaw is working on a disaster preparedness plan and guidebook geared to people with disabilities. The project is part of her participation in EmpowHer Camp where teens with disabilities spent a week in the Adirondacks in New York learning about disaster preparedness survival skills, leadership and independent living skills. Throughout the year, participants connected with mentors and worked on projects of interest. In July, participants will reunite in Washington, D.C., to present their projects.

WHAT ALSO played an important role in her high school career was theater. She said it allowed her to view the world from another person’s perspective through different roles. Besaw said she wants to explore how theater can be used as an outlet for advocacy.

“It’s also an incredibly safe space to talk about whatever needs to be talked about and a chance to laugh at really weird stuff,” Besaw said with a laugh. “I think one of the most touching things I was ever involved in theater was when I was a sophomore where I played a homeless 10-year-old. It really changed my perspective on the homelessness problem in our area.”

Through theater, I have met a lot of beautiful people who have made a big impact on my life and I love them all so much,” she said.

Writing, theater and all the friendships she’s made have gotten her through the tough times in high school.

“I’m so thankful for my senior class sticking together and sticking with me and for helping each other. We’ve had a hard go of high school between Covid and the students and staff members we have lost to suicide over the past four years. I’m just really thankful for everyone here who has offered me a kind word, made sure I had what I needed and so many times made me laugh so hard,” Besaw said.

Through all the silver linings Besaw finds in darker times, there is a part of her that questions if one person can make a lasting impact.

“Glacier is a beautiful place and we have lots of lovely people, but sometimes being a teenager can be a volatile environment, and there were days in my high school environment where I went home and I just wondered, is this making any difference? Is what I’m trying to do helping anyone? But then you remember that it’s helping you and you sort of just have to keep pushing because the world isn’t going to get better if we just sit here and don’t do anything.”

“We can’t wait on the change,” she adds. “We gotta go out there and change it ourselves.”

Glacier High School will hold its commencement ceremony for the Class of 2022 on Saturday, June 4. The ceremony begins at 10 a.m. in the gym. About 290 students are set to graduate. The school is located at 375 Wolfpack Way, Kalispell.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 406-758-4431 or