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FARA Ambassador Program

The FARA Ambassadors is a united team of patient volunteers living with FA who are committed to supporting FARA in the search for a treatment and cure.

Together we seek to know more about FA, and FARA so we can be prepared to represent the community when the opportunity arises; speaking at events, to volunteers, potential donors, scientific groups, pharma partners, media interviews and other awareness and fundraising opportunities. We believe support is key to continued success toward our ultimate goal of treatment and a cure. Participants in the FARA Ambassador Program are passionate about building and upholding relationships within the FA community.

FARA Ambassador Program Mission Statement:

The FARA Ambassadors are positive, supportive, peer representatives for the FA community, actively raising awareness and funds for FARA. To learn more about the FARA Ambassador Program or to have a FARA Ambassador speak at your event, please contact:

The Ambassador Blog

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This blog is a vehicle for the voice of the FARA Ambassador Program and features posts from Program participants and friends from the FA community on a wide range of topics.

The blog features posts about FARA events, articles about living with FA, spotlights on individuals throughout the FA community, weekly interviews to “Meet the Community,” and more. We hope that you will be inspired, uplifted and encouraged through the FARA Ambassador Blog!


Holly LeBlanc

Dear 18 year old Holly,

You turned the big 4-0 this year! Crazy, huh? You think that seems like a really old age. It is hard for you to imagine what your life may look like when you turn that old. I know you have some ideas, goals or even dreams. You feel like you can conquer the world. You believe you'll live forever and your struggles/challenges aren't a reality. Last year a friend of yours died of a brain tumor. Walking through this with her brought you to a faith in a God. This relationship provided courage that you didn't know existed. Before you graduated from high school, you went to your primary physician who sent you to a few specialists to rule out a brain tumor and MS. Your “clumsiness” wouldn't stop you from leading pep rallies as captain of the cheer leading squad, running for class president (GO WITH THE FRO!) or playing the lead in the school play. So when the specialist ruled out a tumor and MS but wanted to send you to the top neurologist at the University of Michigan, you didn't think it was a big deal. The doctor at U of M diagnosed you with a rare thing called ataxia. Roussey-Levy Ataxia. You never heard of it. Only a handful of people in the nation had it. It didn't phase you. You were only 18 years old, just graduated from high school and the world was full of possibilities. Your life changed and you applied to a college that wanted you to spend part of your freshman year studying overseas. You had never heard of the country or knew where it was on the map but that didn't stop you from saying “yes!”. It was your faith that helped you believe it would be okay. Even when you began to fall or trip in random places. You laughed it off but wanted to be certain it wasn't a brain tumor just like your friend's.

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Catherine Brent

CatherineMy name is Catherine Brent. I am 28 years old and I grew up in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I come from a large blended family, my mother had four children from her first marriage and my father had one. After my parents got married, they had me and then my sister. We won the genetic lottery and were both diagnosed with Friedreich's Ataxia almost 2 years ago.

I was diagnosed definitively in January of 2012. Although I was only diagnosed with FA recently, I started showing signs of neurological problems around age 5. I would trip and fall a lot more than other children my age, I lost my balance frequently, I had loss of feeling in my legs, no knee reflexes, and walked more of my tip toes. I was described by my father as walking like a drunk. I was diagnosed when I was 8 with Peripheral Neuropathy, and when I was 13 my diagnosis changed to Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy. family

Through the years my balance and gait continued to get worse. I was a self-proclaimed furniture walker. I would hold on to things in order to keep myself balanced and would stare at my feet in order to see where I was walking because I could no longer feel my feet. I remember my younger sister telling me that people thought I was antisocial because I would walk with my head down and not acknowledge people in the hallways of school.

I did have my own issues with depression growing up. I didn't know anyone with a disability. I felt alone, because I didn't think that anyone could understand me. Don't get me wrong, I had absolutely wonderful friends that would make me feel a part of everything. I also had the most supportive family in the world. My mother made me believe that I could do anything that I wanted to do. She was my best friend. In 2000 when I was 15, I lost my mother to her own battle with depression when she committed suicide.

In the heartache of losing my mother, I continued to worsen physically. I could no longer just be the furniture walker that I was. I needed a person's strength to help me stay balanced. Luckily, I did have wonderful friends and a younger sister that would walk with me to and from class. My sister was always smaller than I was, and she was also very popular in school. I appreciated her immensely, even though I may not have always made it known. There were times that I would trip and I would bring her down with me. So, there we were, two sisters on the floor of the hallway at school. We would laugh, even though I know she must have been embarrassed.

When I was 17, I finally bit the bullet and my father started the process of getting me a wheelchair. My wheelchair was a godsend that let me get my independence back. My house wasn't wheelchair accessible in the slightest. My bedroom was on the second floor. The later years of high school were actually hilarious when I think about it. I would scoot up and down the stairs, and I even think I may have dragged my chair up the stairs a few times. Luckily, I have always had a lot of upper body strength and I haven't lost it.

When I graduated from high school, I attended the University of Georgia. They had a wonderful disability resource center and I also had two brothers that were living in Athens. When I was a junior, I moved off campus into a two bedroom house. I lived with my brother for a year and then my younger sister transferred to UGA and we became roommates. Towards the end of my sister's sophomore year, she started experiencing neurological problems. After 6 years of not knowing what was going on with her body, she was finally diagnosed with FA. I then got tested as well. We are both odd cases of FA. We both have one allele in the expanded size range and one in the normal size range. We were diagnosed because we both have extremely low frataxin levels.

During my time at the University of Georgia, I became involved with a student organization run through the disability resource Center, called LEAD (Leadership, Education, and Advocacy for people with Disabilities). During this time, I met a girl named Robbi Van Shoick. We became friends before my diagnosis with FA and throughout my sister and I's diagnosis, her family has been a great support system. Athens is a small town and we are always amazed that there are two sets of sisters here with this disease.

During the past couple of years, I have gotten back into acting which is my passion. I have done two wonderful shows with a local theatre group. I have also been a guest speaker twice in the class that Robbi co-teaches at UGA, "Communication with People with Disabilities". I also work in the records department of a non-profit called, Georgia Options. Georgia Options works with adults with developmental disabilities. Our mission is to get these individuals out of group homes and institutions and into their own home, so they can have life experiences like you and I. We live with FA, but FA does not define us.


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Ride Ataxia Portland

Have you ever been to a big event like a wedding where you know a ton of people? That is how Ride Ataxia Portland felt to me. This was my second year attending and first time riding. The weather man had us down for rain, rain and more rain. I arrived at the event around 8am. The sun was peeking out and it was not raining. Yay!

There were friends, family, coworkers and many FA families as well. There were so many people to talk to and just a quarter of the people were there this early. The hour flew by. At 9am the 24 & 36 mile rides started. Everyone lined up and they were off! It then hit me that most of the members on my teams were doing the 12 mile route and we were doing a group photo afterwards. I am slow and needed more time so I left on my route at 9:10am rather than 10:00 like the rest doing the 12 mile route. My son, who is 10, rode with me all 12 miles right by my side.

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Lealan LaRoche Sims

Lealan, In My Words By Katie Weir I have long looked up to Lealan’s athletic prowess. On a fall afternoon in the sixth grade, our PE class convened for the annual mile run. Lealan had a reputation for being one of the fastest runners in school and that day she did not disappoint. Lealan left me, and most of the other girls (and boys), in the dust. As we moved in to junior high, Lealan was the best at softball; with her speed she could turn a single into a standup double. I was lucky enough to have her as a tennis partner during those years. On the court she was swift, confident and graceful.

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Diversity Among Wheelchair Users


Society's Profound Need to Recognize Diversity Among Wheelchair Users

In the past few years, since the combination of getting a degree in public health and dealing with my middle sister's and my FA becoming more and more progressed, I have been feeling an urgent need to recognize that simply using a wheelchair does not mean all wheelchair users are, in any way, equal. Here are my thoughts...

"Just as it is illogical to consider all mammals the same because they are warm-blooded, there is no logic in saying all people who use wheelchairs are alike merely because they must rely on wheels for mobility." I wrote this sentence for my thesis project, but thought it was very apropos here. Thus, to me, a wheelchair user for over twenty years, there is an aching need to recognize the diversity among wheelchair users. Although we all use the same type of wheeled assistive device for mobility, individual wheelchair users often possess diverse abilities and have highly unique, specialized physical needs, in addition to individual personality traits and cognitive and emotional responses. In other words, people who use wheelchairs are neither the same individual, nor are they necessarily paralyzed or impaired from only from the waist down; speech, manual, vision, hearing, skin sensations (i.e. tingling, buzzing, burning, or numbness), fatigue level, ability to sleep, and many other complicated physiological processes may be affected.  Robbi and her sisters, Becca (left) and Katie (center). Of course, these physical symptoms vary considerably by disease or condition and they may vary still further from one person to another. The overwhelming majority of people I meet tend to assume that because I look "normal," but use a wheelchair, I must have the typical symptoms of a person with paraplegia: full motor control, no hearing impairment, no difficulty articulating, and no fatigue. I want to scream out sometimes, "NO! I am NOT paraplegic!"

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