INDIANAPOLIS — When Emily Hunt was just a little kid, her name and pixie face became achingly familiar to Central Indiana, as folks throughout the area pulled for her first to live, then to cope with an injury that fundamentally changed her life.
Hunt was 4 years old in August 1996 when she was with her grandparents, siblings and a bunch of cousins at an amusement park.
A seemingly benign “kiddie train” derailed, and Hunt suffered a broken neck. She was paralyzed from the chest down. Her grandmother, Nancy Jones, was killed.
There were lawsuits — Old Indiana Fun Park near Thorntown ended up closing, so there was little financial compensation there. But the family also sued the state, liable because of inspections that missed numerous safety issues at the park. In 1997, Gov. Frank O’Bannon and the Hunt family reached an agreement for about $1.5 million from the state’s tort claims fund to pay most of Hunt’s medical bills.
As a little girl after the park accident, Hunt was often in the news. There were occasional public appearances, including one with actor Christopher Reeve, who became a crusader for spinal cord injury research after he was paralyzed; participation in a ballet performed in Greenwood; and occasional charity and educational events. As the years went by, she appeared less frequently, and the stories focused on her life moving forward and her family’s determination to advocate for spinal cord injury research and to educate people that disability doesn’t mean invisibility.
She plugged away at school, graduating in 2011 from Brownsburg High School. But Hunt was shy, never completely comfortable in the spotlight. As she grew up, she lived a mostly private life.
“I was just a normal kid,” Hunt said, then turned self-deprecating: “I was kind of a dork.”
A normal life and a normal family — that’s precisely what Hunt’s parents, Mike and Amy Hunt, created for their three daughters, said Bud Jones, Amy’s father and Emily’s grandfather.
Emily always hung in there with her twin sister, Nikki, and their older sister, Sarah, Jones said, and her sisters grew up instinctively knowing to watch out for Emily.
Hunt has specific needs — someone gets her in and out of bed, for instance. But in major ways, she pushed to simply be herself, to be part of her family, to forge a life — like anyone else, Jones said.
“Emily puts expectations on herself,” her grandfather said. “A lot of the things she does — she just challenges herself to be one of the group.”
In high school, Hunt found the passion that she now wants to pursue in life: fashion. She turned 22 last month and has just finished her junior year at Ball State University. She’s still shy but anything but cowed by the world.
“I’ve always loved clothes,” Hunt said. “And I’m super girly — I love pinks and purples.”
Hunt also is practical and has a business vision: owning her own boutique.
This summer she is doing an internship at Boomerang BTQ, 845 Massachusetts Ave., where she’s learning the ropes from owner Felicia Kiesel, 27. The eclectic boutique features trendy and retro clothes and accessories.
Boomerang, which Kiesel opened last November, seemed the perfect fit from Hunt’s perspective. Kiesel received about 40 emailed applications and inquiries about the internship.
Kiesel first chose another student, but when that didn’t work out, she offered the internship to Hunt. Kiesel said she didn’t recognize the name but said she chose Hunt because she had the qualifications and specifically said her goal was to own a boutique someday.
They had a telephone interview first, and Kiesel picked up on the trait Hunt’s grandfather described.
“She was very knowledgeable about the industry, about fashion, about trends,” Kiesel said. “She just had a lot of drive.”
After Kiesel picked Hunt for the internship, they chatted by phone again to arrange a first in-person meeting. That’s when Hunt mentioned one thing she hadn’t included in her r￩sum￩.
“Oh, by the way,” she told Kiesel. “I’m in a wheelchair.”
Kiesel said she did have to think about how she might adapt her intern’s duties a bit. Hunt wouldn’t be stocking the top shelves, for instance. But there’s not much else Hunt can’t handle. She works alongside Kiesel, greeting customers and answering questions about merchandise. She is helping shop for new items — online, just as Kiesel normally does — and learning the business end of the business.
Her favorite part?
“Shopping,” Hunt says.
Hunt hopes to finish her degree, then move toward owning her own boutique and, maybe, designing her own line of clothing. Watching Kiesel, she said, has been an eye-opener.
“I am definitely seeing all the hats that Felicia has to wear,” Hunt said.
But none of the limitations Hunt describes herself as having has anything to do with her wheelchair. That’s a part of her life, but it doesn’t define it.
Hunt is finding the definition of her life.
“I can’t wait to apply all the stuff I’m learning when I have my own boutique.”