June 4, 2009 in Washington Voices

Underhill overcomes

Trips to Chinese orphanage inspire Freeman graduate
Val Putnam vputnam@yahoo.com
 
J. BART RAYNIAK bartr@spokesman.com photo

Emily Underhill tends to a sheet of cookies in the kitchen at the Spokane Skills Center. Her experience with the culinary program there has motivated her to study culinary arts at Spokane Community College. bartr@spokesman.com
(Full-size photo)

Emily Underhill is a determined young woman.

Overcoming a learning disability, a mysterious health concern and finding time to serve as a missionary to China, the 19-year-old Freeman High School senior works hard and perseveres through each obstacle in her life with kindness and compassion for others.

“All the hardships she’s experienced gave her an inner strength,” Underhill’s mother Carolyn, 52, said. “She knows what she wants and pushes her way through the roadblocks to get it.”

Abandoned at birth, Underhill never knew her birth father and mother. Her adoptive parents, Carolyn and John Underhill, a pastor, received a phone call from a hospital in a small community outside Spokane. They picked up their new daughter 36 hours later.

Throughout school, Underhill struggled academically. In first grade, she remembers getting words mixed up and having a hard time doing activities.

“I don’t test well,” she said. “I can’t remember what we’ve done in class because I’m too focused on taking notes. I can’t learn and take notes at the same time.”

Upon entering Freeman, Carolyn Underhill requested special accommodation for her daughter. Freeman High School counselor Laura Hamma tested her to develop an individual education plan. The IEP gave her direction on how to proceed through high school academically. The plan also featured access to the learning center, where she could get extra help, including bringing her tests for extra time to complete, as well as having access to her notes.

“She is the hardest worker,” Hamma said. “She has more perseverance than anybody I know.”

Facing an academically challenging senior year became even tougher when she developed a mysterious health concern.

During a five-month period she vomited daily, sometimes numerous times a day. After countless medical tests, the doctors could not determine the cause.

When it seemed they had exhausted all options, her doctor suggested having her eyes checked for a rare eye disease. She went in for the test and got a negative result.

During this same period Underhill began to wear new contact lenses and discovered she felt better while wearing them. She went back to the eye doctor and discovered her glasses prescription was incorrect.

“It was horrible,” Underhill said. “It was determined that one side of the glasses was weaker than the other.”

The illness caused her to miss 31 days of school.

“It is tough making up the time after missing so much school,” Hamma said. “But she dug in and worked hard to catch up.”

Freeman also provided Underhill the ability to explore her passion for cooking by attending the Spokane Public Schools Skills Center every morning for three periods.

The classes gave her the experience she needed to land a summer cooking job at the Christian Conference Center in Cannon Beach, Ore.

After graduation, she plans to attend Spokane Community College and study culinary arts. Her lifelong dream is to one day open a pastry shop.

Underhill is actively involved in her church and enjoys reaching out to those in need.

“She is always thinking of others,” Hamma said. “She is a very caring person.”

Traveling to China with her youth group two consecutive summers during high school, she worked at a special-needs orphanage in Lang Fang.

The trips were life-changing for Underhill. She plans to adopt two children from the orphanage and eventually hopes to work there as a chef.

“Those trips defined Emily,” her mother said. “They were a huge accomplishment and gave her life purpose.”


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