A native of Clifton Park who was given a 50% chance of surviving more than a couple of days defied her odds, living an “inspiring” life of 54 years that centered on helping others, her family said.
Melissa Mead, who died this week, had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. She was born three months premature, weighing just two pounds.
Mead, who was surrounded by her parents, Roger and Judy, and sisters Wendy Kuehner and Cindy Mead Gotobed, was remembered by her family as the Shenendehowa Central School District’s first disabled student to experience a mainstreamed education.
“She’s an inspiration to a lot of people,” Gotobed, a resident of Burnt Hills, said.
Early on in her schooling, the state made Mead go to the Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady for a “disability-type learning situation,” her sister said. Her father recalled her being in one grade for math, another for English.
But because of Mead’s apparent intellect, her parents resolved that “physical limitations are one thing – but she needs to be in school,” Gotobed said.
Her father remembered being on a Shenendehowa committee when a member told them that Melissa was the only student who’d benefit from being mainstreamed.
“That’s how little the schools knew about things back then,” he said.
Mead attended Shenendehowa schools beginning in sixth grade. She graduated high school in 1985 with high honors.
“To say, ‘Hey, I’m smart and I deserve an education just like everyone else,’ kind of paved the way for a lot of special needs kids,” Gotobed said.
The district eventually got a wheelchair lift bus to provide her with transportation, Gotobed said.
Her father had a big hand in starting a summer camp for children and adults with disabilities, the Clover Patch Camp, which had existed on rented space prior to it being donated permanent space in Glenville.
Melissa Mead was one of its first campers. She managed laundry bins for the camp and worked as a counselor, her parents said.
Her sister, Gotobed, said: “It was a wonderful, wonderful place for people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities to go to kind of live in tents and go fishing and do all that fun stuff.”
After high school, Mead attended the University of Albany, State University of New York, where she earned a bachelor’s in psychology with a minor in French and Spanish. She graduated magna cum laude.
As an undergraduate, Mead recovered from autoimmune hepatitis, after doctors had given her a 15% chance of survival.
After earning her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from SUNY Albany, graduating summa cum laude, Mead took a job as a disability analyst for New York State, working out of an office in Albany. She stayed there for the balance of her career.
“It was absolutely the perfect job for her,” Gotobed said, adding that her manager told the family she was one of the best workers they ever had.
“She had a very strong work ethic and basically never took a day off and felt bad if there was a snowstorm and she couldn’t get there.”
Mead was proud of being able to drive and owning her own house in Loudonville.
Her father said a driver’s education instruction specifically for handicapped students told him she would never be able to drive because, according to the instructor, she had an unusual condition that made her disoriented when she drove in a circle or more than 25 miles per hour.
The father said he took her in the Shenendehowa parking lot. She drove in circles, and at more than 25 mph, perfectly, he said.
“We got rid of him and bought hand controls for our family car,” he said.
Melissa was also proud of her science fiction and fantasy writings.
“She had an agent and she actually has a lot of published works out there; mostly short stories and things in magazines, but she was a very, very accomplished writer,” Gotobed said.
Mead was also charitable, buying toys throughout the year to make “huge, huge donations” to Toys for Tots as soon as the bins were put out in public spaces.
“She would just collect them in her house for months and months,” Gotobed said. “Every year we’d have a big outing where we would just take a couple carloads down and fill bins with toys and she loved that.”
The family plans to have Mead cremated and will hold a celebration of her life in the spring.
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.