Local Youth & young adult

Young Stag is statehouse-bound as advocacy coordinator

Lola Kernell, who has Down syndrome, is an A-plus student at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park. When she graduates this year, she will go to work full time as the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities’ advocacy coordinator. COURTESY PHOTO

by Dean Backes
Special to The Leaven

ROELAND PARK — Through four years of high school, Lola Kernell has been a spark of hope for the many lives she has touched. Now, as she embarks on life beyond Bishop Miege High School here, the senior will take her show of inspiration on the road.

Last spring, Kernell, who has Down syndrome, approached Sara Hart Weir, the executive director of the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities (KCDD), at an Advocacy Day at the Statehouse in Topeka where she expressed her desire to work in public policy and advocacy for people with disabilities.

As luck would have it, Hart Weir and her staff were eventually in search of an individual with lived experience of a disability to join their staff. Kernell was an obvious choice.

“Lola had expressed an interest and if you’ve ever met her, you’d know that she is an effective advocate and an incredible public speaker,” Hart Weir said of hiring Kernell in January. “She’s passionate about changing our system in Kansas to work better for our population.”

For now, Kernell’s position is part time. But once she walks the stage and receives her high school diploma, Kernell will go to work full time as the KCDD’s advocacy coordinator.

The A-plus student, who is officing out of Down Syndrome Innovations in Mission, will write and deliver speeches, make presentations in front of her peers, recruit and train people with diverse abilities, create videos and write a blog called, “Lola’s Corner.”

Kernell has been participating on staff calls and is an integral part of all of KCDD’s programming and advocacy. In April, she will travel to Washington to take part in the National Disability Policy Summit. Once the Kansas legislative session wraps up, Kernell will join her colleagues and travel the Sunflower State putting on advocacy training sessions.

A small team that focuses on empowering advocacy for individuals with disabilities, their family members and caregivers, KCDD is dedicated to improving the statewide system in Kansas for people with disabilities, making it easier to navigate supports and services.

“That’s my dream job,” Kernell said. “I love being a public speaker. I like to be in front of crowds. A part of my dream is to be an advocate for those who are like me — with different needs.

“Since this is all done for inclusion, it all comes down to giving a voice to the voiceless — the ones that society puts aside.”

During the hiring process, Hart Weir and her team took into consideration Kernell’s qualifications, experience and passion for the position, just as they would for any new hire. Since her role is brand-new, Kernell will set the bar as advocacy coordinator for KCDD.

Hart Weir said Kernell’s biggest attribute is that she does not take no for an answer.

“She has lived experience,” Hart Weir continued. “This is a system that she has grown up in. Lola is going to bring that experience — not only to our team — but to our council and to the halls of the Statehouse in Topeka.

“Lola is extremely qualified for this position and so much more. We’re just getting started with the impact we’re going to have because Lola is going to change the system for future generations of children and adults with Down syndrome and other disabilities.”

Hart Weir described Kernell as a go-getter and was quite impressed with her resume.

While attending Bishop Miege, Kernell made the honor roll each semester and was involved in French Club, National Honor Society and campus ministry. A recipient of the Eric Druten Memorial Junior Scholarship, Kernell has also received awards in French and theology.

Dual-enrolled at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison, Kernell is an active lector and server at her home parish, Curé of Ars in Leawood. She hopes to one day study theology at Benedictine and will have three classes earned toward a degree when she graduates from high school.

A lover of the arts, Kernell enjoys writing songs and poetry and has had a stage or ensemble role in 10 of 11 productions performed during her four years at Bishop Miege. The props room at the Eastern Kansas League school was named “Lola’s Closet” after she organized it for an American Heritage Girls project.

Kernell performed monologues for Luisa in the “The Fantastics” and Cinderella’s stepsister in “The Ugly Stepsister Speaks Out” for the Kansas Thespians Festival, earning a superior rating — the highest possible.

And through Down Syndrome Innovations’ Ace program, she has worked for the Kansas City Royals, the Kansas City Chiefs and Nautical Manufacturing & Fulfillment, Lenexa. Kernell lists Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Byron Pringle and Eric Hosmer as her favorite current and former Kansas City athletes.

Hoping to be a voice for the voiceless, Kernell’s ultimate goal is to help others make it to heaven and to one day be canonized.

“It’s important to me because my faith is important to me,” Kernell said of why she enjoys helping others. “My faith is important to me because it gives me purpose in my life. My dream for my faith is to be a saint.”

Whether she realizes it or not, Kernell has been an inspiration to her peers, her educators and anyone else that has crossed her path.

“I think some people come into your life and are a spark of hope and that’s what I would call Lola,” Bishop Miege principal Maureen Engen said. “Not just for her own class, but for everyone in this school.

“She genuinely loves people, and that’s why I say she won’t just come and go. You just don’t forget her.”

Bishop Miege Learning Resource director Mallorie Hurlbert said God is at the center of everything Kernell does.

“Lola is filled with her faith,” she said. “She does everything in the name of God and brings that into the classroom and into our community. She really projects what we look for in our Catholic faith, but also in the differences within our community.”

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

Leave a Comment