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Kayla Cornell Has a Message for Fellow Special Olympics Athletes: Let’s Get Healthy Together

Kayla Cornell is the head chef in her cooking class for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Dressed in a blue Special Olympics shirt and surrounded by Special Olympics Michigan athletes, she gives instructions and demonstrates knife skills in the kitchen at the Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids. Cornell’s goal is simple: teach her students how to be healthier. The class is aptly named Let’s Get Healthy Together.

Cornell started teaching these courses in 2019, and in April, she’ll host the first cooking class at the new Special Olympics Michigan Unified Sports & Inclusion Center. The 33-year-old focuses on cooking healthy recipes and teaching specific skills during the seven-week programs. Sharing her passion for eating well is important to Cornell because she once struggled with making healthy choices. This inspired her to endeavor to become a dietitian. Her hope is to work specifically with people with intellectual disabilities. Her message to others? That it is okay to struggle but having a great support system in place makes all the difference.

A Special Olympics athlete stands in a kitchen. She's cutting vegetables.
Kayla Cornell uses her talent in the kitchen and passion for healthy eating to encourage her fellow athletes to make healthy choices.

Cornell was introduced to Special Olympics in the seventh grade when a teacher suggested she try downhill skiing. Uneasy at first with large competitions and sharing a room with a teammate while traveling, she tried to have an open mind. “My mom convinced me in high school that I needed to try it out again, so I drove an hour to ski practice and ended up loving downhill skiing,” Cornell says. “It wasn't until 2014 that I broke out of my shell and played more sports and got more involved in Special Olympics.”

Soon Cornell added gymnastics, softball and other disciplines to her list of sports and started to ingrain herself in the Special Olympics community. This helped her warm up to uncomfortable situations, and with the support of her coaches, family and therapist, she says she now gladly shares a room. “Special Olympics has forever changed my life,” she says. “It’s helped me grow into areas that I didn't know I could grow into.”

A Special Olympics athlete is skiing down a snowy mountain.
Cornell got her start in Special Olympics on the ski slopes.

One of those areas is her work with Special Olympics Michigan. Cornell is Michigan’s first official Health Messenger, and her cooking class is just one aspect of that position. Cornell is trained to be a health and wellness leader, and she also focuses on being an advocate and role model for the community. During trips to Washington, D.C., she and her colleagues meet with lawmakers and leaders in health care to improve access for people with intellectual disabilities. They are pushing to add more public health programs, improve health systems and engage community support.

In addition to her role as a Health Messenger, Cornell serves on the Special Olympics Michigan Athlete Input Council, which is an open forum for athletes to share their voices in areas of leadership like key topics, games and events. “She has been quite an inspiration for the athletes, especially in the southwest region [of Michigan],” says Heather Burke, director of sports and training for Special Olympics Michigan.

Burke says Cornell’s efforts have opened the eyes of many athletes. In fact, some want to follow in her Let’s Get Healthy Together footsteps. “We've got a couple athletes who are now going to be learning the cooking class themselves and offering it so that we can expand our reach outside of the southwest region here,” Burke says.

Cornell recognizes and appreciates the opportunity she has to influence others in a positive way and to bring about change. “Being a Health Messenger has been super important to me because I’m able to help other athletes,” Cornell says. “I see the changes and the differences that are made in the athlete’s life. I sit on Zoom calls and listen to athletes say, ‘Hey, I learned that in Kayla’s cooking class. I learned to drink more water and eat healthier.’”

A Special Olympics athlete sits behind a display of water bottles in a grocery store. The water bottle packaging has her face on it.
Cornell's leadership earned her recognition as Special Olympics Michigan's Healthy Athlete of the Year in 2017.

It is no surprise that Cornell has a knack for helping others. Her mom, Patty Cornell, and sister Kristie Trahan are therapists and have helped those in the Special Olympics community. “I see it hands-on how important it is that these athletes have access to mental health providers and people that can help them through their anxiety and stress,” Cornell says.

As a result, she started a college program this year to focus on becoming a dietitian. Cornell is taking online nutrition classes through the Community College of Denver, and her first class is human nutrition. With no graduation date set and taking one course at a time to start, she says, “I’ll figure out how long it's going to actually take, but I will get there, it doesn't matter how long it takes.”

Once a certified dietitian, Cornell plans to continue her work with people with intellectual disabilities and eventually help people who are hard of hearing as well. “I think that's a big piece of why I want to work with them is because I understand and can relate to what they're going through,” Cornell says. “I can relate to understanding mindful eating. You know, a lot of the eating stuff is they’re bored. They’re stressed, they get anxiety—and I get that.”

Trahan says her sister has always had the innate ability to lead and encourage others. “It comes so easily for her,” she says. “Even [though I’m the] big sister, she encourages me in special ways, only she can do.”

Soon, Cornell will have a degree to back up the natural leader and encourager in her, and she will no doubt continue to inspire others along the way.

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