By Yvonne Dennis (246)

For a girl who doesn’t attend Central High School, Erin McGinniss interestingly displays a lot of Central-like qualities.

She writes poetry and plays about mature subjects, such as HIV infection.

She loves the challenges of advanced-placement classes.

Oh, and she finished 7th grade at C.C. A. Baldi Middle School in June with As in every subject.

Erin is taking it easy this summer before heading to 8th grade at Baldi and applying to special-admissions high schools.

Her first choice is Central. But the 13-year-old also plans to apply to the Arts Academy At Benjamin Rush, which is not far from her family’s Northeast Philadelphia home.

“I love school and Central is very strong about academics and they know how to challenge their students so they can always succeed,” Erin said, speaking Sunday afternoon in her family’s kitchen.  But she quickly adds that writing is her favorite subject and Rush has a great theater program. “If I get accepted into both I would only have a week to decide.”

Erin has the work ethic and the grades certainly to get accepted to some admissions-based school in Philadelphia, but the way to getting around is increasingly becoming a challenge for her and her family as she gets bigger.

When Erin was 18-months old she was diagnosed cerebral palsy and spastic diplegia. These disabilities limit her motor skills and require her to use a wheelchair. Her parents, Joanne and Howard McGinniss, own a minivan and a few years ago they equipped it with a swivel passenger chair that makes it easier to place Erin in and out of the van.

But Howard McGinniss works long days and weeks of varying shifts as a supervisor at the Philadelphia Water Department. So petite Joanne is usually the one lifting her oldest daughter in and out of the van for trips to and from school and everyday errands, plus assembling and disassembling the wheelchair.

A wheelchair-accessible van would be ideal, but a new one would start at around $50,000, the McGinnisses say. It was challenge enough equipping their minivan with the $9,000 swivel chair.

In the spring, the family learned about the National Mobility Awareness Month Local Heroes Contest in which three wheelchair accessible vans would be given away to worthy recipients, so they decided to enter.

“Winning this vehicle could help shape the rest of my daughter’s future,” Joanne McGinniss wrote with the help of  Erin’s reading teacher, Theresa Capecci. “Having this type of vehicle would allow us to transport her to and from school with more ease and will allow Erin to become more independent. This would ultimately allow Erin to attend any of the top schools in the city of Philadelphia. Erin has worked so hard and has overcome so many challenges that she deserves to pursue her dreams of attending one of these schools. This van will allow Erin to do that.”

A family friend told his nephew, Robert Seeling of Central’s 215th class, about the family’s efforts and Erin’s strong desire to attend Central. Mr. Seeling, who lives in Wilmington, N.C., told a bunch of his classmates about the family’s efforts when the 215 gathered in April for their 55-year reunion.

Erin McGinniss won third place in Baldi's science fair among all seventh and eith graders.
Last November Erin McGinniss won third place in Baldi’s science fair among all seventh and eight graders.

“As Central High grads, we had the opportunity of an education that helped us to excel in college and life,” Mr. Seeling said. “I can’t think of a better way to return our gratitude to Central High with compassion and commitment than to support a young person desirous of attending a top high school.”

So members of 215 got online and voted for Erin’s entry, enough to push her into the top 10 of contestants. Unfortunately, the McGinniss family wasn’t chosen.

But Mr. Seeling was undaunted. He wrote to the Alumni Office in hopes of tapping Central’s vast network of proud and caring graduates.

“Perhaps there is an alum who owns a car dealership who might offer such a vehicle to Erin’s family. Perhaps the alumni would contribute to the cost of said vehicle,” Mr. Seeling wrote.

Erin has a wraparound aide who helps her with physical tasks at school–not school work– and she could take a special school bus. But her family is hoping they won’t have to go that way.

“We’re cautious,” says Erin’s father, Howard McGinniss.  “She’s never really been on a bus.”

Erin tells her parents they worry too much, but she certainly appreciates their concern.

The family has a chair it keeps in the van for Erin. It requires some assembly and disassembly.
The family has a chair it keeps in the van for Erin. It requires some assembly and disassembly.

For now she is just enjoying the summer days, reading for pleasure and swimming in the family’s pool. Her father and grandfather rigged a seat to a lift that easily gets her in and out.

“I can’t walk in normal places but in the pool I feel like I’m freer and I’m able to do anything because I can walk.”


If you think you might be able to help Erin’s family obtain a wheelchair accessible vehicle, please contact them at