PARACHUTE – Dani Gonzales, a 15-year-old sophomore at Grand Valley High School, believes all girls should feel like princesses.”It’s really hard to feel like a princess when you’re in the hospital and going through a horrible disease,” Gonzales said. “I know.”Gonzales, who has colitis, won the Local Hero award and an all-expenses-paid trip to New York from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America for developing the Princess Club.She went with her mother and older brother to the Big Apple on Nov. 18. They saw the sights, and Gonzales brought an audience of donors to tears with a speech about her experience.Gonzales, this year’s Miss Garfield County, has worn her crown and sash into a hospital twice to present young women with a crown and sash of their own. The purpose of Gonzales’ Princess Club, she said, is to help other girls with chronic illnesses regain their self-confidence.”After I was diagnosed, my self-esteem was so gone, I hated leaving the house,” Gonzales said. “One day I decided I would have to step it up and do new things.”Gonzales explained her disease as she sat comfortably on the couch in her Battlement Mesa home, wearing athletic shorts and a Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up on her shoulders. She’d just gotten home from cheerleading practice.Her mother, grandmother and best friend listened from the kitchen table as Gonzales explained that she was diagnosed with colitis almost exactly two years ago. Her mother, Mary Moore, who is also a Post Independent columnist, said remission has just brought Gonzales some relief within the last month and a half. Colitis is a genetic auto-immune disorder for which there is no cure. The disease attacks the digestive system. Symptoms can include persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain or cramps, rectal bleeding, fever and weight loss.
“It’s an embarrassing disease,” Gonzales said. “Anyone who has it will tell you that. When people at school ask me about it, I tell them that my colon is basically attacking itself.”Gonzales said the disease has been with her all her life, as it is with everyone who has it, but she didn’t discover it until there was a major flare-up when she was in eighth grade.It was the week before she planned to go snowboarding with her brother at Sunlight Mountain Resort. The doctors first suggested she could have an eating disorder. When they finally diagnosed Gonzales with colitis, she didn’t have much blood left in her system.”It was a really close call,” Gonzales said. “We were going to go to Denver that weekend with my grandma, and they said I had so little blood that going over the passes I would have bottomed out.”After diagnosis, Gonzales was transported to Denver where she spent a week in the hospital.”I was really scared,” Gonzales said. “It was the first time I’d ever been in the hospital. But it was probably really good being in the hospital because my mom got to sleep for a night. Before, she was so worried I would bottom out in my sleep, that she’d stay up.”When she could, Gonzales returned to school. But things weren’t the same. Doctors told her she would have to stop running track and she would have to stop playing hockey.”That was really hard,” Gonzales said. “My family is a real hockey family. We all love it, and I was supposed to start playing for (a team) in Glenwood.”For a while Gonzales didn’t do much. She was an athlete and a self-proclaimed tom boy. The disease got in her way. Then her sister, Charlene Mead, urged her to participate in the Miss Garfield County pageant.
“I tried to get out of it a few times,” Gonzales said. “The pageant was Friday, and I told my mom I would rather go to Elitch’s. I didn’t get out of it. I just kind of blew off the interview portion, and I was just myself. I guess that’s what they were looking for.”Since that pageant, Gonzales has participated in the Miss Colorado pageant and the Miss America Co-ed pageant. She did well at both and won an award for academic achievement at Miss America Co-ed.She’s also gone to a Crohn’s and colitis summer camp in California.”I really wanted to go because I wanted to meet someone my age with colitis,” Gonzales said. “I know my principal here and another older gentleman, but no one my age.”She said it was a great experience, and she met a lot of kids she could connect with.”The first day we talked about our illnesses a little, but then we forgot about it,” Gonzales said. “Everyone had to go to the bathroom a lot, and everyone had to take medication.”Gonzales takes 23 pills a day.”I can do them all in one swallow now,” Gonzales said. “We had competitions at camp.”Even though Gonzales isn’t able to play hockey or run track, she’s found ways to get out and be athletic. She took up cheerleading, which she said she’s allowed to do only because she doesn’t think her doctors understand how strenuous it is.
Gonzales has also taken up golf, which she says isn’t as much fun as cheerleading, but it gets her outside in the spring.”I never would have tried something like cheerleading if I didn’t have colitis,” Gonzales said. “I was a total tom boy.”Gonzales hopes to go to Las Vegas after high school and attend school to become a pastry chef. She would also like to see her Princess Club become a well-established organization that helps girls all over the state, nation and even the world.At camp, Gonzales said she met a lot of kids who were really limited by their diseases and who were home-schooled, something Gonzales said she couldn’t imagine. She relishes the socialization she gets at school.After Gonzales decided to “step it up and do new things,” she developed a motto.”My motto is, ‘Don’t let you’re illness define you. You define your illness.'”Contact Amanda Holt Miller: 625-3245, ext. email@example.com
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