A banner atop Kassi Blanchard’s Facebook page says “welcome to WESTERN #WWUBOUND.” Before landing on the Bellingham campus, she’ll graduate Friday from Everett Community College.
What may seem like typical academic progress is much more. Her story is one of relentless work, unshakable faith and against-tough-odds achievement.
“I knew since I was 5 that I wanted to go to college to be a doctor,” said Blanchard, 34. She plans to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine, a field emphasizing a whole-person approach to care.
With an associate’s degree in psychology, her next goal is a bachelor’s in behavioral neuroscience from Western Washington University. Education at an osteopathic medical school would take another four years, plus a year of residency.
With a 3.9 grade point average and many prestigious honors, among them a Washington State Opportunity Scholarship of $22,500, that goal appears to be within reach.
Blanchard’s interest in wellness grew from her severe health conditions, which caused memory loss, trouble reading, pain, fatigue and other maladies. In 2009, Blanchard was infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, which can cause mononucleosis and other illnesses. Most sufferers get better in a few weeks.
A small percentage of people with Epstein-Barr — “under 1 percent,” Blanchard said — develop encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. Complications, according to the Mayo Clinic website, can include memory problems, speech impairment, lack of muscle coordination, weakness and fatigue. Blanchard was among that 1 percent.
“I was in bed for a month. I couldn’t get up,” said Blanchard, whose symptoms persisted more than two years. She had Epstein-Barr again in 2012, and has dealt with a thyroid condition called Hashimoto’s disease.
Blanchard, who grew up in Seattle and Granite Falls, said her memory was once so keen she could recite the Book of Psalms. She attended King’s Way Christian Academy, a now-closed school.
“I’ve lost half of my memories,” she said Wednesday on the EvCC campus. For years, she made her brothers ice cream cakes for birthdays. When she asked one brother what he wanted and he replied “the same thing I always do,” Blanchard had no idea what he meant.
Reading has been a problem. Due to the effects of her illness, she’d see the word “and” and recognize only the letters, not the meaning. Comprehension has taken time.
She and her husband, Justin Vorhees, are moving from Snohomish to Bellingham.
When she took her first English class at EvCC in 2016, Blanchard said she had panic attacks while trying to write.
Her husband, a University of Washington graduate, encouraged her with the advice “a word at a time, a day at a time,” she said.
With her disabilities documented, she received help from EvCC’s Center for Disability Services. She had to read aloud, and was given double the normal time to take exams. A recording pen, which can also play back a lecture, was also a help with note-taking.
Blanchard’s hardships began in early childhood. Her biological father, who has struggled with heroin addiction, and her mother split up when Kassi was 2. There wasn’t much money. She remembers living in public housing in Seattle, and Christmases without gifts.
With a blended family, she has helped raise eight brothers. The youngest is now 10. “I played mama a lot,” said Blanchard, who also helped care for her grandmother.
At age 7, she was adopted by her stepfather. “It was the first time I felt part of a family,” she said. Her parents, Lara and Geoff Blanchard, of Bothell, will be at Friday’s graduation.
Blanchard has a good relationship with her biological dad, who was in drug treatment when he made the necklace she wore when we met on campus. He is drug-free now, she said.
At commencement, she’ll be the first one walking with honors graduates.
At EvCC, Blanchard served as president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. She was part of EvCC’s TRiO Student Support Services, a federally funded program that helps first-generation and low-income college students, and those with disabilities. Blanchard is the first in her family to attend college.
Along with her Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, Blanchard was one of 10 students nationwide to earn the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society’s 2018 Hites Transfer Scholarship, a $7,500 award. She was named a 2018 Coca-Cola Academic Team Gold Scholar, and given a $1,500 scholarship.
She received the $1,500 Ella Emery scholarship through the Everett Community College Foundation. And she was recognized as part of the All-Washington Academic Team, which honors students from community and technical colleges.
“Individually, she exemplifies what many of our students do here. They come back at any age and succeed,” said John Olson, EvCC’s vice president for college advancement and executive director of the EvCC Foundation.
Blanchard said she owes that success to faith. “Inner strength can only come from my belief in God,” she said. There’s work, too. “The brain is like a muscle, I work it all the time.”
And with one goal completed, she’ll reach for another: “I want to help people. I want to heal people.”