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Sycamore High School intern's outlook lights up county office

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com)
Sycamore High School senior Emily DeCoster, 17, scans documents Thursday at the Chief County Assessment Office in Sycamore. DeCoster began her internship at the office about a month ago.

SYCAMORE – When it gets close to the early afternoon hours at DeKalb County’s Chief County Assessment Office, everyone tends to watch the clock.

It’s at that time the office receives a visit from an intern from Sycamore High School who’s been working there since August. Someone who Robin Brunschon, chief county assessment officer, describes as an amazing person who can make a bad day at the office into a wonderful one. 

That person is Emily DeCoster, a senior who remains positive in the face of life’s obstacles.

“Anything that’s hard for her, she overcomes,” said Sue Purdom, vocational teacher at Sycamore High. “She finds a way to compensate or overcome with whatever life throws at her.”

One of those obstacles hit DeCoster before she was born. She was born with spina bifida, a birth defect where two sides of an embryo’s spine fail to come together, leaving an open space. The birth defect, which translates to split spine in Latin, usually occurs in the early stages of pregnancy. 

DeCoster uses a wheelchair to get around, and says she finds herself having to explain to people on a daily basis why. That often leads her to explain what spina bifida is. But she doesn’t let it define her. 

“I’m not the girl with spina bifida,” she said. “I’m Emily. I have a name.”

She also doesn’t let her disability stop her from enjoying activities such as skiing and playing basketball. Both are hobbies she’s taken up through Shriners Hospitals for Children in Chicago. DeCoster guards her independence and doesn’t like asking for too much help.

“If people are helping me too much, it makes me feel like a baby,” she said. “I can do anything a person who can walk can do.” 

Hundreds of surgeries during her childhood and uncomfortable questions from people have toughened her up, but have done little to dampen her positive attitude. 

She said she is motivated to stay positive every day by hanging out with friends and being around people who share her outlook. Many of those people are from the assessments office, where she scans dozens of documents as part of her internship.

“There’s no drama here,” she said. “That’s probably the biggest reason I love coming here. ... I can have a completely horrible day at school and come here and everything will be chill.” 

Brunschon said the staff at the office is great and DeCoster has only enhanced it. Everyone is excited to have her work there and Brunschon always sees a smile on her face. According to its website, the office provides assessments of property values for the county. DeCoster is getting valuable real-world experience, she said.

“If we have given her anything, it’s letting her know what an office environment is like,” Brunschon said. 

But that may not be the direction DeCoster wants to take in her life. One of her plans after high school is to be an advocate for people with spina bifida.

Brunschon said she reached out to area high schools looking for an intern to work at the office. When Purdom at Sycamore High first heard the office was looking for an energetic intern, DeCoster was the first person who popped in her head.

“I think over time she’s really found herself and became confident in who she is as a person,” Purdom said.

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