Sofie Wigton is going places.
Bursting with energy and enthusiasm, the 23-year-old is hard to keep up with as she scurries around her workplace, tending to chores and putting an easy smile on the face of everyone she greets.
It’s her job. Not making people smile. That comes easy for the bubbly Post Falls woman. Nope, her paid-for duties include tending to all the things that help keep the Locker Room Salon in Post Falls humming along smoothly.
Blowing hair from workstations, warming up heat wraps for clients’ faces, emptying the garbage. All in a day’s work for the bright brunette.
“I just love my job,” Sofie boasted recently as she bustled around The Locker Room at 4010 E. Seltice Way.
Beneath the effervescent smile and upbeat attitude, though, is a lesson. Something Sofie can teach every one of us.
See, Sofie’s been through a lot since she was brought into this world on May 28, 1996, at Kootenai Health. From the beginning, health mysteries have shrouded her life.
Sharp as a tack, Sofie has serious—yet undefined—health issues. Mostly, it’s nearly complete blindness that afflicts her.
“She was born with some genetic deformities,” says her mom, Angie. “We spent a lot of years all over the Northwest seeing different doctors, geneticists, specialists trying to figure out what her story was.”
“Her case just never fit into any kind of box,” Angie said. “So, we kind of turned it into ‘Sofie’s Syndrome.’”
There are no definitive answers for Sofie’s condition. But there is hope. And a whole lot of determination.
Despite 60 or so surgeries (her parents lost track), Sofie was determined to make something of her life.
And her life took a dramatic turn when she was 18 years old and discovered Project SEARCH, a high school transition program that provides education and training to young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“It was life-changing,” Sofie says. “When I was young, I didn’t think I was actually going to be able to do stuff like work. Project SEARCH has opened my eyes to the possibilities.”
Sofie’s mom said the program has changed her daughter’s life in a way her parents never imagined. It provided a direction; an unplanned path to success and happiness.
“When Sofie was a senior in high school the teachers started asking us what her future plans were. It kind of caught my husband and I a little off guard, which it shouldn’t have,” Angie said. “We had just been, for those 18 years, in crisis mode and with so many surgeries and hospitals and we were never really thinking, ‘what are we going to do about her future?’”
Angie says she knew college wasn’t an option.
“But we knew she was capable,” she emphasized. “We felt like she was capable of doing something but with her disabilities we just didn’t know how to move forward.”
Project SEARCH inspires
Celebrating its 10th year, Project SEARCH is a joint program involving the Coeur d’Alene School District, Kootenai Health and TESH, a private, not-for-profit organization whose core purpose is to provide choices and opportunities to people with disabilities of all ages seeking greater opportunities, self-sufficiency, and participation in their community.
TESH chief executive officer Frances Huffman said the united effort has helped dozens of young adults lead a better and more productive life.
“These are young people who have the ability to collect a disability check, but the emphasis is to rise above that level of poverty and live and work in the community,” Huffman says. “Sofie’s a perfect example of that.”
Project SEARCH provides an invaluable lesson of work ethic and self-sustainability for participants, many who rely on government disability support, Huffman says.
“Often, if you don’t supplement disability you almost can’t live—it’s not a sustainable income,” she said.
Theresa Moran has been the Project SEARCH instructor since the program began in the fall of 2010.
An employee of the Coeur d’Alene School District, Moran says she’s seen unbelievable success stories. Of course, a critical part of that success is finding businesses willing to take a chance with Project SEARCH graduates.
“It’s just amazing how far it’s come over the years,” Moran said. “It’s a great partnership with local businesses. To see these businesses are really stepping up and looking to hire people with disabilities and recognize what an asset they can be to their companies is just wonderful.”
Sofie, a 2018 graduate of Project SEARCH, is a shining example of the program’s success.
“She brought so much enthusiasm and lust for life,” Moran said. “She brought sunshine into Project SEARCH every day.”
Back at the Locker Room, area manager Kelsey Krieg says Sofie has been an invaluable part of the team ever since she started working there in the summer of 2018.
“We weren’t quite sure what she would be capable of, but Sofie has no limits,” Krieg said. “She’s like an assistant to all of us … I’d say she makes us stronger. And I’ve never seen anything but a smile on her face. She puts us all in a good mood.”
Sofie’s mom echoed that admiration.
“That has been her biggest strength, her biggest blessing—she doesn’t let anything get her down,” Angie says. “That’s what’s kept her parents going after all these years.”