Friday, December 12, 1997
Voice restored, Nikki's growing up

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Nikki Johnston, 12, her voice lost to cerebral palsy, communicates with the world through a special computer.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
| ZOOM |
When Santa comes to Nikki Johnston's house, he won't even recognize her. She's grown that much since last year. At 12, she's getting to be quite the young lady.

Nikki's a head taller than she was last Christmas. That's when thousands of Enquirer readers got to know her in this column, and many took time to come to her aid.

This year her huge chocolate-brown eyes are even bigger.

She wears glasses now - all the better to see her two boyfriends, Derwin and DeAngelo. ''Knock, knock'' jokes are her favorites. And she's hooked on watching wrestling on TV with her dad.

She'll tell you about her busy life. Where she goes to school. ''Margaret Rost.'' What she had for lunch. ''A cheese sandwich.'' How she feels about being a cheerleader. ''Happy.''

And she'll tell it to you in her distinctive voice, a voice that comes from a talking computer.

You may remember Nikki. I can't forget her.

Her story first appeared in my column a year ago this week.

Nikki has cerebral palsy. It keeps her from walking and talking. She gets around in a wheelchair. She speaks through a computer. Walk into the living room of her parents' Cheviot apartment and she gives you a big grin and a wave. Then she lightly touches the color-coded screen with her left thumb and the computer comes to life. In a little girl's soft voice, it says:

''My name is Nikki.''

When she looks at her mom, Nikki has to press a button so her mother can hear the words:

''I love you.''

Just before the holidays last year, thieves stole her voice. Nikki got sick at school and her dad came to take her home. When they reached their apartment, he put her talking computer down by the car and carried her up three flights of stairs.

He turned right around and raced down the steps to grab the computer. But, it was gone.

The computer was not insured. Nikki's mom, Toni, is a clerk at Christ Hospital. Her dad, Jeff, is a maintenance man. They could not afford to replace her computerized voice.

But the people of Greater Cincinnati could.

One hundred forty caring strangers sent money to the Nikki Fund, c - o United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cincinnati, 3601 Victory Parkway, Cincinnati, 45229-2298.

Individual donations came from both rich and poor, in amounts both large and small. They totaled $9,809.06. That's in addition to the $7,500 Fluor Daniel, the company cleaning up Fernald, gave so Nikki could have her voice back in time for Christmas.

Since last December, the money in the Nikki Fund has helped 30 kids with problems similar to hers. It has allowed some to speak for the first time through a computer. For others, it's paid for special grips so the kids' hands won't have to struggle so much to play with a favorite toy.

Nikki the Super-Wrestler

When I saw Nikki a few days ago, she was on the mend. She had stomach surgery a week ago Monday.

''I feel achy,'' Nikki reported through her computer.

She pulled up her top and pointed to her bandaged stomach.

Because of the operation and a case of bronchitis, she's just getting back to school.

''My teacher's name is Lois,'' her computer said at the touch of Nikki's fast left thumb.

Nikki's speech pathologist's name is Phil. He programs her computer.

Phil Nuxhall calls her ''a speech pathologist's dream.'' He has worked with Nikki for the past three years.

''She works hard to figure things out. And she never whines. With her, if there's a will, there's a way. She's got a lot of spunk.'' She needs it. She wants to be a professional wrestler when she grows up.

Nikki grinned as she pressed a button on her computer. Her thumb wiggled with anticipation as it touched a symbol of two people bruising each other.

''I love WWF wrestling.''

Between giggles, Nikki groaned, grunted and roared. Those are her wrestler noises.

She made a muscle with her left arm. Then she sliced the air with a wicked karate chop.

Before things got too wild, I made a move for the door. Didn't want to have to explain to my editor how a 12-year-old got me in a headlock. Nikki saw me putting on my coat. One more time, she touched her computer.

''Goodbye, Cliff.

''Have a nice day.''

Thief steals a voice Dec. 11, 1996
Donations pour in to replace Nikki's talking computer Dec. 13, 1996
Nikki has her voice back Dec. 22, 1996

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.