In 1991, when Megan Rasbold-Gabbard was a sixth grader in Lexington, Massachusetts, she came home with an assignment to write an acrostic poem. When complete, the first letter of each line was to spell out something that was important to her. After little deliberation, she wrote this:
I wander hopefully,
Now anxious for an amazing adventure,
Deciding for myself.
Everything is so good.
Promise that I will be happy.
Everybody is important, friends and family.
Not being lonely, but
Daring to do things alone.
Empowered to be a self-advocate,
Confident in choosing.
Ecstatic that my wheelchair gives me independence.
This poem captured exactly what Megan already was and what she would continue to be throughout her life: a leader. Advocating for herself came naturally to Megan. Born in 1983 with cerebral palsy, she often challenged others’ doubts and assumptions in order to take her rightful place in the spaces where she knew she belonged.
Megan died peacefully in her sleep in her family's home in Newton, Massachusetts on May 13, 2020.
Megan’s leadership ability in some ways came from her heritage. Born on April 6, 1983 in Faga’alu, American Samoa, Megan’s great-grandmother Tuatagaloa bestowed on Megan the middle name “Ali’itasi.” The name comes from a high-ranking extended family in Samoa and means "the first chief" or "the most powerful chief." Apart from her natural role as a leader, she was a watercolorist, an avid baker, a consultant, a teacher, an activist, a parishioner, an outdoor adventurer, a daughter, a sister, a niece, and a loyal friend.
Megan loved life and met every challenge she ever encountered with a ferocity, a grace, and a strength that few possess. From her first moments, she was tenacious. She was born two months early at the island's only hospital. At only 14 hours old and in the throes of a medical crisis, she was air-evacuated to Honolulu to receive newborn care unavailable in American Samoa. Inspired by her return to Samoa, the community purchased the hospital's first preemie warming bed and incubator to support other babies who, like Megan, were born too soon. The purchase laid the foundation of the current neonatal intensive care unit which now serves preemies and their families on-island.
By the time Megan’s family moved to Boston in 1984, Megan had racked up more frequent flier miles than most people do in a lifetime. She continued to travel throughout her life. She loved to read and was an inquisitive thinker and learner. She graduated from Newton North High School in 2002 and took classes at UMass Boston. During high school, Megan found her love of painting, and pursued watercolor classes throughout her life. She also loved to bake—her coconut macaroons and brandy-soaked fruitcakes were legend among friends and family and at her church’s holiday festivities.
From childhood, Megan was a staunch advocate for disability justice and inclusion. Megan never made decisions based on whether others thought she could participate in an activity—be it taking a writing class, climbing a mountain, or riding a roller coaster. Instead, the important questions were "How can I make this happen?" "Who can help me do it?" and, most important "Who among my friends and family would it be the most fun to do it with?"
Although physical movement and speech were complicated for her, Megan was a nationally recognized consultant and trainer, working with both professionals and parents about the importance of authentic, intentional inclusion and community building. Among others, the New York State and American Samoa Departments of Health engaged her to work with parents of young children with disabilities, early intervention providers, and school personnel. Through that work, Megan taught a generation of families, teachers, and providers about the importance of inclusion, advocacy, and social justice for all. She was an active advocate for herself and others, joining public gatherings in support of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the Women’s March in 2017.
Megan was also deeply involved with the community of worship at Grace Episcopal Church in Newton, where served as a lector and a member of the Centering Prayer group. She was an active member of the Women of Grace.
A true extrovert, Megan will be remembered for her giant smile, her easy laugh, and her adventurous spirit. She loved outdoor activities and in spite of physical barriers, she always found creative ways to swim, ski (both downhill and cross country), ice skate, and run. She cleared new pathways for other people with disabilities who came after her by doing what she loved and ignoring individuals and barriers who stood in the way. One of her Samoan aunties remembers her first attempt at ice skating while visiting Megan and her family in Massachusetts: "I remember our outing to Frog Pond to ice skate in the bright January dark... I remember her joy on the ice, which encouraged me to overcome a fear of falling and speed around the rink with surprising abandon. I think this was one of her constant gifts to me, to keep moving into the unknown, to lean into my fears. Exhilaration often ensued."
Megan's depth of empathy put people at ease and made them feel welcome, especially through the gift of food, an important Samoan custom. Megan adored parties and holidays and any chance to celebrate. Megan knew who she was and what she believed; she was unafraid to share her strong opinions on everything from politics (on which she was well-informed thanks to her love of NPR) to bedroom wall color (electric red, a color choice not necessarily supported by her mother, who knew better than to veto it). She was a compassionate listener and cared tremendously for all the many, many people in her life who loved her. She was easy to love.
A celebration of Megan and her life will be held when we are once again able to gather together in person.
Megan is survived by her parents, Ruth-Ann Rasbold and Glenn Gabbard, her brother Max Rasbold-Gabbard and sister-in-law Meredith Whitmore, and her many aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Please consider supporting two of Megan’s most passionate commitments: her spiritual journey and her love of outdoor adventure. Resources donated here will be shared between two important organizations:
-- Grace Episcopal Church in Newton, Massachusetts to continue their extraordinary efforts to welcome people with disabilities as integral members of their religious community; and
-- Waypoint Adventure in Lexington, Massachusetts, a non-profit organization focused on bringing together people through the power of outdoor adventure and sports.
If you would prefer to donate directly to either of these groups, contributions in her memory can be sent to:
Grace Episcopal Church
76 Eldredge St
Newton, MA 02458
453 Concord Avenue
Lexington, MA 02421
Please include a memo on checks: "to celebrate and in memory of Megan Rasbold-Gabbard."
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