Zoey (Cohen) Leege '97
After working with people with disabilities for 18 years, Zoey’s life completely changed last January when she was diagnosed with a disability herself. Right after the new year, she got the chills like a cold or the flu. First it started in her arms and she thought nothing of it (it was winter in Minnesota!), then it went away. Soon after, her pinky fingers started getting numb and tingly. She thought, “that is odd--maybe it’s a pinched nerve related to my back pain?” She spoke to her father who is a retired doctor. When he was concerned--then she was concerned! He recommended going to the ER and getting an MRI done immediately. After a series of symptoms and subsequent appointments, she was told by a neurologist they were “surprised she was even walking,” and diagnosed her with a rare, neurological disorder called Neuro Sarcoidoisis. It was this condition which led to damage in her spinal cord and nerve damage, known as Transverse Myelitis. Zoey is expected to recover slowly over the next 2-5 years and is hopeful that her condition will not turn out to be progressive.
Joining a Caring Community
Zoey came to Minnehaha Academy in the middle of 7th grade. She was struggling in public school, was often bullied and not doing well in math. One of her best friends at the time was Ellen Bergstrom who transferred to MA in 7th grade. Because Ellen switched schools, Zoey’s mom said that they could consider it--and thought she might feel more at home at a smaller school. It wasn’t easy for her, but Zoey did better in school and started making friends. She made a group of friends that were very connected both with MA and the youth program at Bethlehem Covenant Church, which was the center of her spiritual growth and social activities. She improved greatly in math, and credits her teacher Rich Enderton. “I do not know how I would have gotten through calculus without him! College was easy compared to Mr. Enderton’s class!” Mrs. Anderson’s art class was her favorite, where she learned drawing, painting, and mixed media. She and her classmates Andy Ness and Allison Lindbloom had a whole class period to themselves with Mrs. Anderson in their senior year. She won several art contests, but it would take her “forever” to make a painting and she “would never finish it.” Zoey says, “I had some wonderful teachers, both at Minnehaha Academy and Bethlehem Covenant.”
Zoey went on to get her undergraduate degree in Art History, then her Master’s in Vocational Rehab Counseling. She originally went to UW Stout to major in Graphic Design, but felt it wasn’t her path because she wanted to do something to help people. For six years she worked for a local non-profit, Choice Unlimited, as a job coach with people with developmental disabilities. Zoey then worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the State of Minnesota for seven years, and afterwards spent two years as a consultant. She now works as a disability advocate for a small local non-profit called Arc Northland, which provides advocacy, education, and supportive services for individuals and families with disabilities.
Zoey’s passion for art was reignited while taking an art class in her local community. With her instructor’s encouragement, she had her first art show at a coffee shop in Two Harbors in the middle of winter--and friends and family turned out in droves to support her. She has now had six art shows and specializes in paintings and mixed media.
A New Season
Zoey is at a juncture in her career. Her dream is to continue to do disability advocacy with an art focus. “I was meant to be working with people with disabilities, and now I’ve come back to art and would like to put the two together.” She is also at a place of growth in her spiritual life, and is gaining a sense of wonder and interest in what spiritual teachings and philosophies have to offer in terms of common truths. She is especially interested in exploring her Jewish and Norwegian heritage.
To The Students
What advice would Zoey give to current students? “I believe there is a match for everyone out there for work--no matter your limitations. You will come to know what you are meant to do over time. Follow what you are naturally good at and what you enjoy--and it will come to you. Don’t force the other stuff.”
“My best life lessons have come from working one on one with people with disabilities. Now that I myself have a disability, I look back and realize my positive outlook, sense of humor, art, and love and support from family and friends has gotten me through.”