Heart, soul outshine Janesville Craig grad’s wheelchair

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Saturday, June 11, 2011
— Talk with Kyle Knopes for a while and you soon forget the wheelchair and the condition that’s robbing him of his strength.

Knopes’ face radiates a kind smile and a mature intelligence. In the end, that’s what you remember about him.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. He was supposed to live only eight to 12 years. He’s 18, now, and graduated Friday with the rest of the Craig High School Class of 2011.

Knopes suffers from spinal muscular atrophy. The condition doesn’t allow his body to produce new muscle. Over time, he loses strength.

Gazette readers might remember him as the child who went to China in 2009 with the help of local fundraisers to get injections of umbilical-cord stem cells.

After his first injection, he was able to roll from his back to his side, something he hadn’t done since he was 6, he said.

He continues to benefit from those treatments, he said, but it was no miracle cure. He still needs help getting through his day. He

doesn’t dwell on what might happen to him. He’s more focused on living his life than on a prediction of how long he has to live.

“It doesn’t really matter because it wasn’t right the first time, so another one wouldn’t do much good,” he said.

Knopes is a good student, with a 3.6 grade-point average. Teachers love him, but he is not above a little mischief.

On occasion, he tells his aide, Jeannette Pryor, that he won’t be around much of the afternoon. Then he and friends jump in a van for an extra long, unauthorized lunch.

Pryor said she loves working with him “because he’s so intelligent and because he has an awesome sense of humor.”

Pryor takes notes for him because he can’t hold a pen long enough to do it himself. When she’s not available, friends share their notes, he said.

He could drive with a specially adapted car, he said, but the cost is prohibitive.

He’s a sports fan, especially baseball. He loves the strategies, the match-ups and the pitching. His eyes sparkle when he mentions the 10 Milwaukee Brewers games he attended last season.

Knopes saw an ad in the newspaper for an umpire at a youth league in Afton last year. He applied and got the job. He doesn’t work behind the plate, but he makes calls just like any other ump, working between first and second base.

He also applied recently for a job as a cashier at Sears and got that one, too.

His first job, however, was at Mac’s Pizza Shack.

Owner Bill McMullen met Knopes at one of Knopes’ fundraisers. Knopes told him he was having a hard time finding a job. McMullen told the teen that if the treatments worked out to come back after the China trip, “and we’ll talk.”

Knopes came back, and McMullen hired him.

“He does a great job for us, and everybody loves working with him. So it’s been a real pleasure for us,” McMullen said.

“People have come up to me and said, ‘We really appreciate the fact that you hired Kyle,’ and I always tell them I didn’t hire Kyle because of his disability. As soon as I saw that smile, I knew I wanted that smile inside my restaurant because he’s going to take good care of my customers,” McMullen said.

Craig teacher Mark Mullen is a Knopes fan. They go to Brewers games together. The only problem is Knopes won’t use an elevator. He once got trapped in one, so he now avoids them.

Mullen, like many others, has no trouble seeing past Knopes’ physical limitations.

“Other than the fact that he’s in a wheelchair, he doesn’t seem any different than any other kid,” Mullen said.

Knopes plans to study psychology at UW-Whitewater starting this fall.

“He’s going to go far, no matter what he decides to go into,” McMullen said. “He’s just that type of kid.”

Last updated: 5:40 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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