Kimberly Kwon is determined to uplift the beauty and worth of those most hidden. Kimberly was born under 3 pounds with Cerebral Palsy, a group of disorders that can impact mobility, muscle tone, and posture. The diagnosis influenced her family’s decision to immigrate from Korea to the U.S. for better health care and support systems and away from the stigmas around disability that still exists within all cultures worldwide. “It’s still seen as shameful to have a disabled child, who is judged as “less than” and “broken” in Asian cultures; it was not spoken about back then. If you had a disabled child, they were put in homes and hidden away, or given up for adoption. They weren’t even acknowledged as part of the family.”
Growing up, Kimberly and her family traveled throughout the Midwest, where they were often the only Asian family on the block and where Kimberly and her younger brother Paul were part of a handful of Asian students in their school. The countless moves each promised fresh starts for Kimberly, bullied throughout her childhood for her disability, which impacted how she walked. She learned early on to ignore the harmful words of her peers, but they still took their toll.
She battled with what she now recognizes as depression, brought on by the difficulties of growing up disabled in an able- bodied world. “You’re always feeling a little bit left behind. You’re always feeling like you’re not enough.” At some point in her youth, she came to understand the reactions she received to her body, to her existence, were greater reflections of the other person’s fears than they were of her worth. “People are uncomfortable with a disability because it reminds them that they are not perfect. And it’s hard for people to face that subconsciously or consciously.”
In high school, Kimberly developed a deep passion for writing, a skill she always held great confidence in. She joined the school newspaper with a big dream: “I was going to become the Asian Barbara Walters, but for print journalism. I was going to ask the tough questions, work for Time Magazine or maybe the New York Times.” At Indiana University, she pursued that dream, earning a journalism and political science degree while working several internships.
Post-college graduation, she fulfilled a different promise to herself: to formally learn Korean. Kimberly decided to spend a summer in Korea, reuniting with her extended family and enrolling in Korean language classes at a prestigious university in Seoul. Her summer visit was extended after Kimberly’s grandmother was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer. Kimberly prolonged her stay to an entire year, taking classes and teaching English as a Second Language and remaining by her grandmother’s side until her passing. Kimberly would visit her grandmother every day. She didn’t know enough Korean to have lengthy conversations, but her grandmother had recently converted to Christianity. Kimberly sang traditional hymns and modern worship songs, which became their shared language.
The summer after her grandmother‘s passing, Kimberly began her next chapter at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. She spent the next four years working multiple jobs, holding a full schedule of classes, and exploring diverse paths to herself and God.
Kimberly discovered challenges in the Church community as a single, disabled Asian woman. “The traditional Christian evangelical and Catholic Church is built with historical systems that are patriarchal, outdated and often inaccessible to women who are not married, or persons with disabilities.”
Kimberly shared examples of Church pastors and leaders who have openly discriminated against her disability, telling her she can’t be ordained because “she isn’t healed” or because she isn’t married to a pastor or leader in the Church. “Disability isn’t a bad word. It doesn’t mean I can’t or they I need fixing or forgiveness. It means I do things differently. I am made in God’s image as much as any able-bodied person. You and I are perfectly whole, right now.”
After graduating from Fuller, Kimberly struggled to find her place in the Church. She wanted to pursue hospital chaplaincy full time, but unlike the other chaplains in the program, she did not have a spouse to financially support her through the three year certification process. “Once again, a system that benefits those who are married rather than single, and other marginalized groups.”
Kimberly had bills to pay and a life to live, and she didn’t need to be married to live it. She pivoted her career and leaned into her communications background, taking temp jobs and administrative roles to help make ends meet. She remained an active member of various churches on the weekends, helping with youth and newsletters and community events – still finding comfort in her prayers and times of collective worship.
Kimberly eventually landed communication roles in the non profit and corporate sectors, ofte wearing multiple hats balancing administrative, human resource communications and project manager responsibilities. Each job opened opportunities to figure out what she wanted and didn’t want in her hectic and full-time life.
Somewhere in between her full-time job, community service and Church life, Kimberly’s body started to scream. At 28, she was diagnosed with lupus in her kidneys and for more than a decade, was diagnosed with a new condition every year, with multiple medications and unbearable levels of chronic pain and fatigue. She became medical mystery meat and had no choice but to apply for disability benefits.
She spent more than 15 years on disability benefits, walking with a cane, living in chronic pain and unable to work any normal job. “I felt like my body was betraying me, and I struggled to find a reason to exist. I felt like a burden. I felt incredibly invisible because I was no longer in the normal workforce. I was homebound, and living a completely different life.”
Kimberly found comfort in knitting, and took part in online knitting forums that included people from around the world. Many people in the knitting world also struggled with chronic illness, and Kimberly started leading several online chronic stitching support groups – with caregivers, family members and chronic warriors – all of whom were battling their own personal, mental, physical and emotional struggles. “It wasn’t the same as a normal job, and I definitely held irregular “office” hours. And it wasn’t for money or recognition. It was a way to give to others and help people with their personal and professional life.”
Kimberly helped others navigate doctor appointments, difficult conversations, career changes, resumes, FMLA and the disability process.” Kimberly didn’t realize it then, but she was a pastor, a mentor, a friend and a coach in those groups. This was her training ground.
Meanwhile, her body kept screaming, with new conditions every year, and Kimberly knew she could not keep living this life; it simply wasn’t sustainable, physically, emotionally or financially.
Disability benefits are a fraction of one’s salary, and the rules to what one can earn while on disability keep you dependent on the broken systems without hope of financial stability or independence. In the wake of the 2016 elections, Kimberly knew things were changing and she could not rely on her disability benefits to take care of her into retirement. Something had to give.
Kimberly realized she had to stop helping everyone else and start helping herself. She realized that all these years, she thought her body was betraying her when her body was actually talking to her. “I needed to listen and talk with the parts of myself that were feeling abandoned, screaming to be heard, and hurting from my past and present traumas. I needed to love and accept myself like never before – my cerebral palsy, my disabilities and see myself as whole right now. I didn’t need fixing, I just needed to learn how to fill my cracks with gold.”
Kimberly did her magic and found her mojo, integrating spiritual health with emotional and physical wellness, and began writing a new story. Her story. One of resilience, accountability and acceptance. One that permitted herself to be listen to her body, forgive her past self and release her old story. Miraculously, she stopped living in chronic pain and many of her health conditions went into remission. She was full of energy again, no longer needed her cane full-time, and was able to give up her disability benefits.
Kimberly returned to the workforce starting her own business as a life and career coach at the age of 48 and then later became certified as an executive and leadership coach who specializes in resilience, communications, leading with emotional intelligence, and wellbeing.
Kimberly doesn’t think anyone should give up their disability benefits or that she is special because her chronic pain and list of health conditions improved. “Getting disability benefits is a battle in itself. Keep them for as long as you need them. Disability is not a bad word. We do not need to be healed to be whole. I will always be disabled with cerebral palsy. I am still living with lupus. Everyone has their own journey.”
Kimberly is the “I’m Possible” solutions coach. Her life and disability has taught her that we can always experience and do things differently and that it’s never too late to start again. “It isn’t about making the right decisions but finding what works best for right now and taking it one step at a time.“
She is passionate about working with everyday contributors, managers and leaders to help them listen, communicate and lead more effectively, with empathy and understanding for the whole person. She loves helping people navigate their challenges, crossroads, and transitions in their life.
Her coaching philosophy values the individual wherever they are on their journey, just as they are.
“Our lives and experiences are all intertwined, and our stories are being rewritten every moment and stitched together. It doesn’t always look pretty or make sense, but you can always write your own story, put in your own plot twist, and start again.”