ISC student turns diagnosis into life of service, Presidential recognition
When Jessica Waters was 11 years old, her young life changed. She could no longer go swimming on her own or ride a bike by herself. She even had to be careful watching television — it was a trigger for her seizures.
After being diagnosed with epilepsy, Waters, now a University of Kentucky sophomore studying integrated strategic communication, had little enthusiasm for what was ahead of her.
"It was right at that age where you're old enough to start doing things on your own," she said. "And I couldn't even go to the mall with my friends."
She didn't know yet the impact she would have on others' lives, or that she would be recognized nationally for her work. That would come years later.
In the meantime, her mom, Chastity Irwin Register, searched for something to make her feel like a normal kid again and found a camp designed specifically for adolescents with epilepsy.
"I saw worse cases there who were 10 times happier, while I was throwing myself a pity party," Waters said.
The camp changed Waters' outlook on life.
"She was a different child; the one we had before her diagnosis," her mom said.
But more importantly, it spurred her into action. Waters experienced firsthand the impact these camps have and she wanted everyone to have that opportunity.
"And I wanted to spread the message that epilepsy doesn't have them, they have epilepsy," she said.
So in 2010, she founded Cupcakes for Camp and began organizing the sale of cupcakes and other baked goods in her community with the hopes that she could pay camp fees for other kids.
She made $75 from the first bake sale. But the event garnered local news coverage in her hometown of Beavercreek, Ohio, and soon she had corporate sponsors and donations from bakeries flooding in.
Since then, Waters has raised well over $15,000, allowing numerous children with epilepsy to attend summer camps.
"If you have the means to help someone else, there's no question you should be doing it," she said.
Her mission to raise money, and awareness, for children with epilepsy set in motion events over the next few years that would establish Waters as a pillar of service in her community and across the nation. In addition to Cupcakes for Camp, she volunteered with countless organizations and shared her story at universities and health fairs.
So far, she has spent more than 4,300 hours in service to others and her overwhelming dedication hasn't gone unnoticed.
Waters was honored just last month with the Stars of Service Award by the Corporation for National and Community Service and the President’s Volunteer Service Award Gold Medal, which included a congratulatory letter from President Barack Obama, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
She is only the second person to ever receive the Stars of Service Award, which recognizes young people who have demonstrated outstanding examples of volunteering and service. President Obama established the award in 2014 as part of new commitments to improve pathways to employment for AmeriCorps alumni, encourage community service by young people and expand national service opportunities.
"I didn't start this to get recognition, but I'm glad that it did," she said. "Now a little girl in Connecticut and a boy in Arizona are using Cupcakes for Camp as a model to help kids in their communities."
Throughout her years coordinating Cupcakes for Camp and other service projects, Waters also began emerging as a young leader. She has participated in the Reach Higher Summit with First Lady Michelle Obama, attended American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation and served as a national ambassador for the Epilepsy Foundation of America.
Today, the UK College of Communication and Information sophomore leads and serves as the assistant philanthropy chair for Delta Delta Delta sorority at UK, which she said wasn't originally on her list of schools to consider. But after attending a "see blue." Preview Night in Dayton, Ohio, Jessica decided to visit UK and explore Lexington.
That afternoon, she called her dad and said "I hope you like to wear blue!"
"As soon as I arrived I saw that people weren't just reeling me in," she said. "There are really some amazing programs, teachers, advisers and students here."
In between classes and her sorority, Waters has also interned at Susan G. Komen Kentucky. She said she's sure now more than ever that she's meant to work in the nonprofit sector, continuing to help others.
And she's happy to report that she has been seizure free for three years.
Story by Whitney Harder, UKPR. UKNow story here.