Born with spina bifida, English Language Learners (ELL) teacher Heidi Kriener ’11 grew up in a home where everyone was inspired to believe in each other and oneself. Her entire family included the future Upper Iowa University alumna in everything they did, even if it meant making modifications to their plans to make it happen.
“To this day, I don’t like the word ‘can’t,’” Kriener said. “If it is said to me, I will do my best to prove it can be done. I owe a lot of my attitude and determination in life to my family and the fact that I was told to give it my best, try anything and everything.”
And she certainly has.
A member of the Spina Bifida Association of Iowa and the Pony Express Riders of Iowa, the 42-year-old continues to enjoy horseback riding, camping, hunting, country music, sports and fishing. She has harnessed this perseverance to earn a college degree, enjoy a rewarding career in education, and most recently, receive recognition as Ms. Wheelchair Iowa.
Graduating from Turkey Valley High School (located in Jackson Junction, Iowa), Kriener didn’t initially choose to pursue an education degree because she was concerned students wouldn’t listen to her. She learned otherwise when asked to teach a class at her church; it not only proved to be a positive experience, but she realized how much she loved working with children and was inspired to return to school to pursue a teaching career.
A native of Waucoma, Iowa, Kriener followed in the footsteps of her father, the late Marvin Kriener, in attending classes at UIU’s Fayette Campus. Knowing she would receive an affordable and highly regarded education degree close to home also played a key role in her decision to attend Upper Iowa.
Kriener earned an elementary education degree with endorsements in reading, K-8 language arts and Prekindergarten–Grade 3 at UIU. She later received an English as a Second Language endorsement from Morningside College.
“From my UIU experience, I developed a wonderful foundation of skills and knowledge I needed to become a successful teacher,” Kriener said. “I was able to branch out and discover my true passion in the area of teaching ELL.”
Currently employed at both her high school alma mater and St. Joseph Community School in New Hampton, Iowa, she works with Spanish speaking students to help improve their English skills in reading, writing, listening and speaking.
“I enjoy working with all my students and especially getting to know their cultures,” Kriener said. “I really like when things start clicking for them and their skills improve — those ‘aha’ moments. We never know where the future may take us, but I would really like to continue what I’m doing until I am no longer able to.”
Children provide added inspiration
It was from one student that Kriener experienced one of her own ‘aha’ moments.
Kriener first heard about the Ms. Wheelchair Iowa competition from a friend. After learning more, the UIU alumna decided her participation could provide her with an opportunity to further inspire her students to see that anything is possible if they try. Still not totally convinced, Kriener asked an eighth-grade student if she thought her teacher should be in a wheelchair competition.
“Knowing this student as I do, I wasn’t surprised when she instantly lit up like a lightbulb and she told everyone who walked into the classroom that ‘Ms. Kriener is going to be in a wheelchair pageant,’” Kriener explained. “I never try to let any student or child down, and it was at that moment I knew I definitely couldn’t let her down.”
As part of the Ms. Wheelchair Iowa competition, the northeast Iowa educator submitted an application and created a brief platform speech. Contestants were originally scheduled to compete March 7, 2020, but the event was cancelled when a number of the contestants became ill. Instead, Kriener was interviewed and chosen as Ms. Wheelchair Iowa 10 days later via Zoom.
“At first I was like, ‘Yeah, I did it. No big deal,’” Kriener said. “But I quickly realized how honored and blessed I was to have the opportunity to represent people with disabilities and the great state of Iowa. I am so excited to go out and make a difference — show not only people with disabilities, but everyone, the importance of inclusion — and if that means speaking up for something, then do it!”
The pandemic has altered the scheduling of speaking engagements, but Kriener has been able to visit a few other schools and participate in public events to advocate for issues she holds near to her heart.
“I would definitely like to see more inclusive playgrounds in Iowa that allow all children and families to play together,” Kriener said. “I plan to continue talking to parks and recreation people about their respective playgrounds and help them understand the importance of having inclusive playgrounds. I would like to see small steps taken that eventually lead to bigger and better playgrounds for everyone to enjoy.”
The nationwide Ms. Wheelchair America 2020 competition was postponed due to the pandemic, but this allows Kriener to advocate for more widespread inclusion and accessibility for an extra year before competing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in August 2021 for the national crown.
“I don’t want anyone to be afraid to take on new challenges or advocate for what can make life and the world better,” Kriener said. “Help make sure everyone is treated the same and has similar access to everything that life gives us!”
Anyone who wishes to have Kriener speak at an event or to an organization may contact her on Twitter: (@Ms_WheelchairIA), Instagram (@Ms_WheelchairIA) or Facebook (facebook.com/mswheelchairia).