OLIVET, Mich. — As sophomores, most students are still adjusting to college life. They might join a club or a team, but many students wait until their senior year to tackle their biggest goals. That’s not the case for sophomore Crystal Lettinga.
Lettinga is a journalism and mass communication (JMC) major from Byron Center. She’s a dedicated member of the women’s golf team and president elect of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. She’s also helping to organize a new video production practicum for JMC students, but Lettinga’s most important role in life is as an advocate and role model for her twin sister, Coral.
“My twin sister, Coral, has autism. After my father passed away when I was 12, my family had to make a lot of changes,” Lettinga said. “Mine was to help my sister as much as I could. Now, even while in college, I want to stand up for her and others like her. Growing up with a sibling that has a disability is not easy, and I want others on this journey to find love and support. Everyone, everywhere, deserves the love and support of their community.”
On April 3, Lettinga did exactly what she set out to do. Partnering with Hope Network, a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities live independently, Lettinga hosted the inaugural Walk for Autism Awareness at Olivet College.
The event welcomed almost 400 people, including children and adults with special needs, families, advocates, supporters and others for games, celebration and a walk in an inclusive and understanding atmosphere. In addition, the walk exceeded its goal to raise $5,000 for Hope Network.
“Hope Network and Olivet College were very supportive of my goal to host the Walk for Autism Awareness,” Lettinga said. “Being able to have that opportunity and really make a difference … I just couldn’t ask for anything more. People do really want to see a difference in the world and it’s awesome to be able to create an event where we can do that together. I got to make amazing connections; there were even guests at the walk from Albion. It was just a great day!”
Backed by Comets
Lettinga describes her idea to organize and host the walk as just a crazy thought. She was hesitant at first, wanting to uphold a strong commitment to golf, but Lettinga’s friends and professors saw just how passionate she was about raising awareness for autism. Joanne Williams, associate professor of journalism and mass communication, gave Lettinga the extra push she needed to turn a “crazy” idea into a reality.
“Professor Williams helped me turn my experience planning the walk into an internship. She was behind me all the way and always there to talk to. My teammates are like my sisters and supported me at the walk, too. I know the whole school wanted me to succeed,” Lettinga said.
“I originally chose Olivet because of how small it was. I come from a small town and I know how close-knit small communities are, so I felt a connection to campus right away. It’s a great feeling to always have help. I really like that Olivet College allows you to go after your dreams.”
Lettinga is already thinking ahead, confident that the success of the first Walk for Autism Awareness can help the event become an annual tradition at OC. Her ultimate goal is to get other college campuses involved by hosting similar events all over the state of Michigan.
“Everyone coming together is a force to get the word out there. Autism isn’t talked about enough,” Lettinga said. “Autism is a lasting issue with a stronghold on society and that’s not going away. There are people who need to understand that they’re not different. I’ve had to adapt to life with an autistic sister and have always had to work around the way people treat Coral. It’s given me the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself — I have opportunities to raise awareness and make connections.”
Success in Every Corner
Lettinga’s passion for advocating and making connections is also what inspired her to major in journalism and mass communication. While she’s not sure where her future career path will take her just yet, Lettinga is excited to be learning about all of the different avenues in the field.
In addition, Lettinga is currently playing her second season of collegiate golf. She enjoys golf in particular because of its challenging mental aspect in addition to the physical skills needed. And, of course, Lettinga is thankful for the relationships she’s built with her coaches and teammates.
“I want others to know that Olivet College allows students to have a voice,” Lettinga emphasized. “Olivet wants to hear you. You’re not just a number. The professors, staff members and leaders know your name and they want to see what you can do.
“I knew that coming to Olivet would allow me to go home on the weekends to stay connected with Coral, but I also knew that Olivet was an inclusive and diverse campus that was open to people with disabilities. I’ve found my perfect combination to wear the hats of college student, athlete, advocate and caretaker.”
Learn more about Olivet College by contacting the Office of Admissions at 800-456-7189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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