Kat Coutant: Gaining Strength Through Giving Back
Through volunteering, Kat has not only helped others cope during difficult times with chronic illness, but she’s also found her own confidence and purpose.
When I was seventeen, I didn’t think much about the future or about what I wanted to do. Like most high school seniors, the only thing I knew was that I wanted was to go to college – the rest, I thought I’d figure out eventually. Little did I know, an arthritis diagnosis was about to change my forever and “figuring it out” would have to come sooner than later. But in many ways, my arthritis has made me the person I am today, and through giving back, I’m an even stronger person than I was before.
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
It started with wrist pain. At first, my parents and I thought it was carpal tunnel syndrome, which made sense because I was taking a typing class and an AP class that required a lot of writing. But it wasn’t until I couldn’t even hold a pencil that we started to think it was something else. Countless doctors’ appointments later, I finally received a diagnosis: Polyarticular JIA with hypermobility.
Life with arthritis brought several challenges and bumps in the road. The pain eventually spread to my back and hips and got so bad that I could barely sit up. Because of the pain, I ended up missing the last semester of my senior year and couldn’t graduate with my class. I felt so alone and like my whole world had been crushed.
When I was first diagnosed, I mostly kept my arthritis to myself. But when I returned to school in the fall, I started to be more open about it. I didn’t just want to be labeled as the “girl who got held back” or “the girl with arthritis,” but being honest about my condition changed my life. I started coming out of my shell about my illness.
In a way, arthritis forced me to grow up. That year, I decided it was my chance to experience the senior year I didn’t get to have the year before. Getting a second chance at senior year, living truthfully about my arthritis, made me more confident and helped shape who I am today.
Flash forward at 23, I am a college student majoring in health communications. My goal is to be a patient advocate and help others who are going through similar struggles I know all too well.
Finding Community Through Charity
Growing up, I was always taught to give back. At age six, I started volunteering with my mom at Slate Run Living Historical Farm, and I have worked there for over sixteen years. We dress up in 1880’s fashion and educate the public about what life was like back then.
About two or so years into my diagnosis, I started to volunteer at Arthritis Foundation events and became a counselor for our JA Family Day. These days, I serve on the planning committees for the YA and JA conferences. Meeting others at the Foundation who understood my struggles and what I was going through made me feel so much less alone.
In addition to giving back through the Arthritis Foundation, I volunteer at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Ronald McDonald House and The Royals Project. The Royals Project is a nonprofit organization, of people in their teens, twenties and thirties in Columbus Ohio. We volunteer and dress up as Disney, Marvel and DC characters and go to our local children’s hospital and other charity events. Through this group, like the Arthritis Foundation, I have made so many friends and found such joy in giving back. We make magic happen for kids who are struggling with illness or other life changes. I think as JIA young adult, I can relate to a lot of these kids, and know what it’s like to have to be in and out of doctor’s appointments when everyone else your age gets to be carefree.
Giving Hope During the Pandemic
The pandemic has everything changed. The Royals Project normally has events at least every weekend and when the weather gets warmer, we have more. However, with the way the world is right now, our group is unable to visit kids in person. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying to achieve our mission. We want to send smiles, so we came up with an idea to make videos for whoever needs or wants them. This way we can still bring joy to kids during these especially uncertain times. Plus, making these videos has honestly a lot of fun to do, and given me something to look forward to during this difficult time.
Of course, talking to a screen is different than meeting a kid in person, but the most important thing is to keep everyone safe. I miss seeing the kids face when we walk in the room. I miss my friends; I miss the kids asking me all kinds of questions. I miss seeing my friends every weekend or running up to my princess friends to hug them, but I know that we are still making a difference in kids lives even if we must do it differently. When this is over, I know the smiles I brought to these kids and their families during this time is all worth it.
To access videos from The Royal's Project for the children in your life, click here.