CHAMPAIGN — A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis hasn't changed Kelsey Lee Kaiser all that much.
The smile has rarely left her face.
"She's been like that since she was a little girl, always a smile on her face," mother Missy Kaiser said.
And Shannon Roberts, her aunt (and her boss at The Fitness Center in Champaign), said: "She's never known a stranger. She's so outgoing."
Kaiser has had bouts with depression, common in people with MS.
"I hate it when the depression comes," she said. "I hate it because it's not me. That's not the way I am. I'm the girl with the smile."
For a 19-year-old to face her diagnosis, when she'd rather be hanging with her girls, collecting boyfriends, shooting photos and taking college classes, she had to lean a little on her faith and her friends as well as her parents.
Still, "I handle the MS (diagnosis) better than a lot of the people around me," Kaiser said, including some friends who decided to drift away from her after the diagnosis.
Said Missy Kaiser: "People outgrow that sort of behavior. Young people think something is contagious. It isn't."
According to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America, the disease "is the most common neurological disorder diagnosed in young adults. Its causes are not yet fully understood and researchers continue to search for answers. Although the disease may not be cured or prevented at this time, treatments are available to reduce severity and delay progression."
It's not genetic — Missy Kaiser says the extended family had no known unusual neurological problems until now.
Kelsey Lee Kaiser, who said she is the happiest person she knows, is thankful that she is well-off in many ways.
There haven't been any financial problems so far in her family, which also includes father Greg and a brother and sister, 16-year-old twins Peyton and Alyssa.
"I'm lucky that I can stay on my parents' insurance until I'm 26," she said. "There are a lot of things I'm grateful for."
One thing she's glad for is that the money raised at the annual MS Walk goes to further research on the disorder. Her team will raise money for that research.
(The Sept. 9 walk starts at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana; you can find out more in the accompanying box or donate to the cause by going to walkild.nationalmssociety.org and clicking on "Urbana" on the home page.)
After her graduation from Champaign Central High School last year, Kaiser has taken classes at Illinois State University and Parkland College.
She hopes to earn a photography degree, and she already has learned a lot about lighting subjects. She's done some professional work that shows her subjects glowing in natural light.
Kaiser is also optimistic about her health since she was recently changed to infusions of a new medication that seems to have eliminated a numbness problem and halted the progression of her 50 lesions, which can grow on the brain and on the spinal column.
There have been no new symptoms since she received the infusion.
Kaiser is grateful to be able to work two jobs and have close friends.
"In 1993 there were no treatments for this, and now there are seven," she said.
Though there's no cure, neither is multiple sclerosis a death sentence.
Dr. Becky Parks is an MS specialist whom Kaiser sees at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. Parks said she's optimistic that the FDA has approved seven "disease-modifying" medications and "more are in the pipeline."
Kaiser said there were neurologists at local hospitals here, but she had to go to Barnes for a MS specialist. She also attends a support group here.
Parks said most people with MS won't die of MS.
"The vast majority of people with MS do not die of MS or even from complications of MS," she said.
Statistics show that people with MS live into their 70s or beyond, according to the MS society.
"We are optimistic because there are definitely tools available now that make a real difference in treating the disease," Parks said. "We've always had medications that help with the symptoms.
"In general as new drugs are added, they may have more efficacy than older drugs. It also helps to have several tools. Not every patient responds to any one drug."
The neurologist said MS strikes as early as 12 and often shows up in the college years, "where some young people might not take it seriously at first."
It took some weeks before Kaiser was diagnosed. Last Dec. 4, she felt some numbness on the right side of her face.
Numbness and extreme fatigue are common symptoms of the disorder.
An MRI confirmed the diagnosis Dec. 29.
"All those dates are burned in my brain," she said.
Kaiser said she has to avoid stress and keep from getting overheated, which limits her ability to exercise.
"It's kind of ironic that I work in a gym," she said.
Numbness has come and gone many times since then, and at one point she used a walker briefly, but she feels fine now. Last month, she enjoyed a mission trip to Washington, D.C., to help the homeless. She is a member of Holy Cross and St. Patrick's fellowship groups.
And she keeps busy with work at Classic Events Catering and The Fitness Center.
At the health club's day-care center, she energetically chases after children, and she sings to them.
On a recent day, Jesse Kaap, 5 1/2, and his younger brother Michael, 4, enjoyed a coloring session with Kaiser.
They told her she's their favorite, then debated whether their mother is actually their favorite. And when their mother, Liza, showed up, Michael blurted out: "Mommy, mommy! I like Dad better."
With the other children, Kaiser sang songs and read from story books. A Halloween-themed book kept a little blonde girl out of the circle, despite invitations saying it's safe.
Of course, Kaiser's invitations were accompanied by that ever-present smile.
If you go
What: MS Walk
When: Registration opens 11:30 a.m.; walk begins 1 p.m. Sept. 9
Where: Meadowbrook Park, at the intersection of Windsor Road and south Race Street.
Website: walkild.nationalms society.org/site/TR/Walk/ILDWalk Events?pg= entry&fr_id=17974
Details: The route is 100 percent accessible, with 1 1/2- or 3-mile options with a rest stop at the halfway point; fruit and water will be provided
More: Volunteer opportunities are still available to cheer at the Urbana finish line, take event photos, and help tear down after the event (to sign up, call 312-423-1139 or go email@example.com)