Student-athlete balances life while taking care of sister with autism

BYRON CENTER, Mich. — Crystal Lettinga is good at a lot of things: she is a talented equestrian, a collegiate golfer and has made the dean's list at Olivet College twice.

But to Lettinga, the most important thing is being the best sister she can be.

She got her first horse at 10 years old and trained it to be a therapeutic horse for her twin sister, Coral, who has autism.

“It was just great to see her smile, which is what my goal is at the end of the day for her,” she said.

The twins’ mom, Connie Lettinga, says it was a struggle to find a doctor that would provide a formal diagnosis for Coral.

She says doctors would tell her, "’Oh, it’s a twin thing. Don't worry about it. One is just doing more to accommodate the other one.’"

Crystal took matters into her own hands.

“Some people would have just said ‘OK, this is life, let's see what we can do from here.’ But I twisted it around with the help of my mom and my family's support and be like ‘alright, what can we do? Let's make a difference in the world,’” she said.

Between the responsibilities of being a student, an athlete and a sister, Crystal maintains a positive outlook, something that doesn’t go unnoticed by the people around her.

"Crystal is one of those people that stand out. She's bright, she's bubbly, she's always asking question, and she's always doing something," said Joanne Williams, associate professor of journalism and mass communications at Olivet College.

But she's had her challenges along the way.

"So, at a young age, I definitely grew up really fast. At 12 years old, my father Michael passed away. So that was completely sudden which made me have to step up into some shoes very quickly," she said.

Despite the difficult circumstances around her, she always remained positive.

"I'd always kind of think, ‘hey things are different, this isn't how everyone's life is, that I'm growing up with a whole different background, a different path, but I never really looked at it in a negative way. I always used it to push me to do something different, to be positive," Crystal said.

"She has taken some pretty hard knocks in life, and instead of feeling sorry for herself or pity, she's taken it to another level," Connie said.

In 2009, the family opened the "Coral Lettinga Campus" Center for Autism in Grand Rapids through Hope Network, giving families a place for resources, therapy, and a sense of community: a term Crystal took to heart.

This year, she took an idea to Williams to bring the Olivet and surrounding communities together.

“So Crystal said, ‘I want to do a walk.’ And I said, 'Well, that's a big undertaking,’” Williams said. “’I want to do a walk!’ So a year later she did a walk. In Crystal's case, from day one, she knew where she wanted to go. She kept that goal in mind and she made it happen."

The first annual "Walk for Autism Awareness" at Olivet College raised money for the cause and brought people together from those living on campus and from around the area.

“We have the power to give the voice, which anyone does, and we're just kind of running with it,” Crystal Lettinga said.

Crystal says her goal for the next autism walk is to be bigger than the one before, and in the future, to have as many college campuses participating as possible.

She hopes they could all take place at the same time to ensure those voices that can’t be heard are on that day.

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