When Ellie Clark started middle school almost six years after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, she decided to try and hide everything about her condition.
“I had a robotic part on me all the time,” Ellie said, referring to the pump on her arm that delivers insulin when needed. “I wasn’t confident. I didn’t want people to see me like I was different or weird. I didn’t want people to see me like that.”
Her sophomore year, another student on her robotics team was diagnosed.
“I emailed him letting him know that we were facing the same thing and if he had any questions he could reach out,” she said. “Then something changed: I had someone else my age that I saw going through what I was.”
She said it was the confidence displayed by her classmate and other students with Type 1 diabetes that motivated Ellie to embrace every aspect of who she was, including her diabetes.
“Now I go to robotics competitions with short sleeves on, and people walk up to me and say that their son or daughter has the same condition and we can talk about it together,” she said.
Ellie’s diagnosis was especially hard for her mother, who was also diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes as a child.
“She had a really hard time with it because she didn’t want me to go through what she went through,” Ellie said.
As the family was adjusting to her diagnosis, her mother heard about the Grand Rapids Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s “One Walk For a World Without Diabetes.” Putting together a group of family members, team “Ellie’s Elephants” was born.
“I loved elephants at the time, and so my mom decided that that was going to be kind of like our mascot,” she said. “It was mostly family.”
Since that first walk, Ellie’s Elephants has grown to include an Ellie Clark Charity Golf Outing and cycling competitions that benefit diabetes research. Since August of 2004, the group has raised more than $350,000 for the foundation.
“It is great to see the community becoming involved,” Ellie said. “I have friends from school that participate and we all wear our shirts to school as a team.”
Not a Team, A Family
“When I came to high school, I didn’t have many friends and I wasn’t very social,” Ellie recalled. “I couldn’t find a place where I felt like I fit in, but the robotics team took me in as a freshman.”
After years of 12-hour practices and trips around the nation, she said the robotics club has been the biggest part of her time in high school.
“It’s been a place where I met my best friend, and where I’ve had some of the best and worst times,” she said.
Now in her last year on the Grandville robotics team, Ellie looks back at the lessons from competition.
“As I’ve moved my way through the robotics system, I’ve learned how to communicate with people — people I didn’t even speak the same language as,” she said. “It’s also taught me leadership, time management and problem solving.”
Serving as a captain of the Grandville robotics team, competing on the swim and dive team and helping run Ellie’s Elephants has kept her busy, she said.
“I am a person that doesn’t like having nothing to do. I don’t like breaks, I don’t like wasting time.”
That work ethic is also reflected in her classwork, teacher Kari Wiest said.
“Ellie is such an amazing young woman: she’s quiet and humble, and she should be recognized for how truly incredible she is,” Wiest said.
After graduation, Ellie will attend Michigan State University to study electrical and biomedical engineering. She also has plans to join a robotics club in East Lansing.
Her dream job has a very personal connection: “I want to create prosthetics and biosensors (a mechanism that detects blood glucose levels) that are more diabetic-friendly. I want to help people that need it. Unfortunately they don’t let seniors in high school make biosensors, so now I’ll be able to do that.”
Though she’s excited for her next chapter, the district holds a special spot in her heart.
“Grandville has been there to support Ellie’s Elephants, the robotics team and the swim and dive team, all things that made my high school experience what it is. I’ll definitely miss that,” she said. “I do plan to keep up our organization and make it bigger and better than ever before.”