By Ulrika G. Gerth
---- — Sophie Korpics was once no bigger than an eggplant. Born nearly four months early, at 251/2 weeks, she weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces. She spent her first three weeks on a ventilator, and it took her one hour to ingest one droplet of milk.
Last week, Sophie, now 14, rode her power-assisted wheelchair down the hallways at Newburyport High School for the first time. She likes how wide and smooth they are compared to the middle school and how well she has been received by other students.
And when her dad on a recent Sunday said the next hurdle will be getting her into college, she replied reassuringly: “Oh, you don’t need to worry about me.”
Sophie has made a habit of beating the odds since her parents, Steve and Nathalie Korpics, brought her home to Newburyport after her first 115 grueling days at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 2, she has faced so many medical procedures that they shook their heads and laughed when asked to list them all.
During those early days when her future seemed uncertain, they could not imagine that she would learn to walk, make the Nock Middle School honor roll, perform in theater productions and approach life with such a positive attitude that her doctors talk about her as an inspiration.
“Maybe God put me on this earth to inspire others,” Sophie said. “Everyone is trying to find a purpose in life, and I feel like that might be mine ... My life is hard enough; why do I have to make it harder for myself?”
She gesticulates when she carefully chooses her words and punctuates her sentences with soft hums. She is articulate, thoughtful and, according to her caregiver Kim Baxter, an old soul and a romantic, who likes to turn on Beethoven or Mozart before she goes to sleep.
Despite their age difference — Baxter is 45 — they have developed such a close bond that Baxter said she thinks of Sophie as her “little daughter.” Every day, Baxter greets Sophie when she gets off the school bus and assists her with homework and daily activities while her parents are at work.
“She’s a doll,” Baxter said. “We fit together like hand in a glove.”
When Baxter heard that Sophie’s Star Fund was depleted and that the family, which also includes Roger Korpics, 11, would no longer be able to pay for in-home physical therapy, she decided to spearhead a fundraiser.
The fund is named after a song that Steve Korpics wrote in Sophie’s honor when she was still in the hospital. Created by Toby Hoare, a former owner of Ten Center Street where Steve Korpics used to be head chef, Sophie’s Star Fund has over the years provided services and tools to enhance her quality of life.
It has paid for a specialized tricycle and for Sophie to attend a sports camp in St. Louis, Mo., for children with cerebral palsy; her therapeutic horseback riding, adapted swim classes and much more.
Sophie was just 2 when Hoare dedicated his annual Memorial Day Chowder Fest to the fund, something he would do again for the next five years.
Since the fundraisers ceased, the Korpics have not been comfortable asking for help and said they feel thankful, but also emotional about Baxter’s initiative.
After two months of preparation, the family-friendly event takes place Sunday at Moseley Woods in Newburyport.
“I’m just happy that she wants to do this for me, that she loves me this much,” Sophie said.
Nathalie Korpics added, “It feels like a lot of people need that help and we’re lucky Sophie is doing so well. But when I look back and see what the fund has paid for, we just couldn’t have done all these things for her.”
She recalls the devastating feeling when she thought Sophie would be immobilized forever. Sophie was delivered on Nov. 12, 1997 after Nathalie Korpics developed the life-threatening condition toxemia. Early on, tiny Sophie possessed a will to live.
“There’s always been a way with Sophie,” Nathalie Korpics said.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” Sophie filled in.
At age 2
1/2 she took her first steps and, at age 3, she underwent a nine-hour hip surgery. Eight weeks in a full body cast followed. She still went to preschool at the Brown School and when Halloween came, her parents found a costume big enough to fit over the cast that stretched from her armpits to her ankles. These days, she wears a scoliosis brace for up to 20 hours a day and ankle-foot orthotics that Sophie said make it nearly impossible to wear cool shoes.
“People still walk up to Sophie and talk to her as if she were dumb and she says, ‘Why do you talk to me that way? I’m not mentally impaired. I just don’t walk all that great,’” Steve Korpics said.
Starting middle school was initially as tough for Sophie as her mom had feared. Nathalie Korpics said Sophie was trying to find her way amid stylish UGG boots and the pressure of fitting in. Then, she discovered theater. Once again, she became an inspiration to non-disabled kids who overcame their stage fright when they saw Sophie had no fear.
She has acted in a string of school plays, her most recent being as a villager in “Beauty and the Beast.” Her mom, who once worried Sophie would never be able to even take a train, this past summer saw her go off to an improvisational theater camp in Pennsylvania and take part in a performance camp at the Firehouse Center for the Arts.
“I’ve a passion for singing, I’ve a passion for musicals,” said Sophie, who, when asked to name her favorite Broadway musical, quickly rattled off her top four picks. “For one thing, I like being able to still have a passion in life.”
Once she settles into her new routine at the high school, Sophie hopes to again take voice lessons at the Musical Suite at the Tannery. Further into the future, when she has stopped growing, she wants to kick the scoliosis brace. And even sooner, the supplemental night feedings with a feeding tube should just become a memory of a time when she was still very small.
“When they talk about my early, early life, it gets emotional,” she said, “but I should feel proud of myself for making it this far.”
IF YOU GO
Sophie’s Star fundraiser, a benefit for Sophie Korpics, 14, who has cerebral palsy.
Sunday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Moseley Woods, 14 Spofford St., Newburyport
How: Cash or check donations should be made payable to Sophie’s Star Fund. The event is family-friendly and offers a buffet, live music, a silent auction, games, prices, a bouncy house, a miniature golf course, karaoke and improvisational theater