Student column: Emily McNaughton


When people first glance at Emily McNaughton, they might notice her graceful height and bouncing ponytail. What they can’t see, however, is the disease squeezing the 13-year-old’s joints in a vise-like grip. Sometimes, McNaughton is in so much pain that it’s physically challenging for her to get out of bed. During flare-ups, a wheelchair is her chariot.

McNaughton has juvenile arthritis (JA). She receives an infusion once a month at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare. Each week she gets a chemotherapy shot that makes her nauseous for days.

Nevertheless, this eighth-grader at Our Lady of Peace Catholic School (OLP) in Minneapolis says she is not fighting this malady alone. Everyone at school is by her side fighting, too, which helps her persevere. McNaughton knows her school community genuinely cares.

The school teaches compassion and looking for the good in others. Likewise, McNaughton’s schoolmates are learning lessons from her example of overcoming obstacles.

“Emily makes the kids feel empathy,” said OLP Principal Jan Heuman.

McNaughton’s mother, Molly McNaughton, said she’s heard bad stories from people with JA at other schools, but she added “we’ve never had one negative issue at OLP.” Emily never gets bullied. In fact, school families want to assist in any way possible. For a service project during Catholic Schools Week this year, students at OLP raised $800 for the Arthritis Foundation, an organization that guides families in developing personalized plans for living a full life  — and aims for a cure. Emily fundraises for the organization but was too sick to plan the event, so classmates did all the work. Emily was touched by their support and friendship.

Being at a Catholic school empowers Emily to be an advocate for people with arthritis.

“If I wasn’t at a Catholic school, I wouldn’t be as open about my disease,” she said. “Because of my Catholic school’s support, I get courage — I know I can do this fundraising.”

Emily has raised more than $55,000 for the Arthritis Foundation. She was named its youth honoree for championing arthritis awareness and for her fundraising savvy. She has given presentations in classrooms, sororities, the Mall of America, boardrooms and at an advocacy summit in Washington, D.C. Emily’s family even hosted a three-hour pajama party for 80 classmates, with donations going to the foundation.

Recently, Emily produced a YouTube video about JA (see it at Viewed more than 500 times, her message has now journeyed beyond American shores.

Emily’s dream is to be pain-free someday. When she is, families and staff at Our Lady of Peace will be there, continuing to support her every step of the way.

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