In the year 2011, Maggie Fisher and Shirley Meade met with Derek Fennell’s parents, Robert and Teresa Fennell. We met at the home of Charlotte Beam who is Derek’s grandmother to talk about the wonderful life of this very special young man.

          Derek Fennell was born in Boynton Beach, Florida on April 10, 1981. He was born with Spina Bifida. He was confined to a wheel chair, but being a strong determined young boy he continued to grow and blossom in everything he did.

          On October 29, 1983 he was blessed with a brother named Darren.

          When Derek was three years old the family moved to Sorrento. Then at the age of four his parents enrolled him in the Headstart Program in Umatilla.

          When he was five years old he started kindergarten at Roseborough Elementary School in Mount Dora. Later that year he joined the YMCA and became an Indian Brave.

          When Derek was six years old, he went to Camp Challenge for their summer program. During his camp session his parents met a director with Easter Seals Florida that wanted Derek to be an Ambassador for Camp Challenge. His parents were so proud and so very excited about the opportunities this would bring for Derek.

          He represented Camp Challenge as the First Ambassador from 1987 to 1989 in many different ways. His picture was in the newspapers, on posters and flyers like these from Camp Challenge, that shows him holding one of his favorite new friends he met at camp, a bunny rabbit.  He met TV personalities and went many places and experienced many new things.  What a very lucky young man he was.

          Some of the many things he did was visit Boone High School in Orlando, where they had a service club that held a fundraiser selling Easter Lilies with the Easter Seal Emblem on them. He was on one local TV commercial for safe Halloween and another commercial for Haunted Woods with Steve Jerve from Channel 9 TV. He also went to a luau at Polynesian Village at Disney World and a softball tournament at Sea World.

          Derek attended another softball tournament in Sanlando Springs Park, where he helped to raise money for Camp Challenge. The things he did and the things he experienced are things that most young children never have the opportunity to do.

          When he was 8 years old he did what lots of young boys do, he fell and broke his leg. His parents took him to Harry Anna Children’s Hospital in Umatilla which was owned and operated by the Shriners. Of course, it wasn’t long before he was all smiles again and having a good time.

          His brother Darren was always with him at special events. They were not only brothers, but good friends. One summer Darren wanted to show his support for Derek so he worked in the kitchen at Camp Challenge.  Another summer he volunteered his time working with the campers.

          He loved to go bowling. His parents always supported him in whatever things he wanted to do.

          One year when the family went on vacation in Pennsylvania, they took a picture of him in front of a race car because he loved racing so much. His favorite drivers were Dale Earnhardt Sr. & Jr. While we’re talking about sports, I have to tell you he was also a big Florida State Seminole fan.

          When he was a member of the YMCA he played Tee Ball. He would sit in his chair and hit the ball, then the coach would push him around the bases as fast as he could run. I’m sure that was lots of fun for Derek. He also planted a garden of radishes and he entered them in the exhibit for the YMCA at the Lake County Fair.  While he was at the county fair he took some time out from the YMCA to enjoy the rides. He loved being in the fifth grade at Roseborough Elementary School, because now he was old enough to participate in the Orff Kids Band.  

          When the Sorrento Park opened in the early 1990’s he went to the grand opening and of course when you looked around you could see him playing tennis in his wheel chair. What a remarkable young man he was.  

          Derek was selected Student of the Week at Roseborough. When he was in the 5th grade he was in the “Most Fabulous Feet Contest”. Bill Sheaffer from Channel 2 TV came to the school and Derek had his picture taken with him. He also joined a local Cub Scout Den and when he was ten years old, he was in Weblows.

          In elementary school he love music, so when he was promoted to Mount Dora Middle School he joined the band and played the Xylophone.

          While he was in Mount Dora High School the whole family was invited by the Lake County School Board to attend a meeting where Derek was recognized as Disney’s “Dreamers and Doers”. He had his picture taken with Dan Ingram, who was a Teacher’s Assistant.

          Derek loved football and always participated in many school activities. The coach picked him to be the Team Manager and you could always find him out front cheering for his team. The night of the Homecoming game, Mount Dora played the Eustis Panthers. At the awards banquet he received a certificate and a letter for a job well done as Team Manager.

          He also went to Grad Night at Disney. On his 18th birthday he went to the prom with a good friend, named Emily Balser.       

          Derek loved school so much that after graduation he spent the next couple years working at Mount Dora Middle School as Library Assistant. He started out by volunteering and did such a good job that they hired him.

          After he worked there for awhile he wanted to try something different. He worked at Walmart as a greeter for about three years.

          As you can see from these pictures, Derek had lots of friends and family. His friends would come over for a visit and they would lift Derek into the pick-up truck and toss his wheel chair in the back. Derek, his friends and his brother were off for a good time!

          One of the special things he loved was going fishing with his Dad.

          Since he was such a big sports fan, his Mom took him places like Disney’s Wide World of Sports. He is pictured here with Bill Brewer, a good friend who taught at Mt Dora Middle School.

          Derek had a wonderful family that loved him dearly. He was such a joy to be around. Derek passed from this life at the young age of 23, leaving beautiful memories in the hearts of those that loved him most; his mom, his dad, his brother, his grandparents and many friends.

          His story was published in last year’s “Healthy Living” magazine and in Camp Challenge 50th Anniversary “Memory Book” published last year.

          Maggie didn’t know Derek until after he graduated from Mt. Dora High School. She met him through his grandparents Billy and Charlotte Beam. She said every time she was around him he was always friendly and happy and it was always a pleasure to go to Walmart and be greeted by such a fine young man. 

          Shirley met Derek when he was in her “Title I Group” in Kindergarten. She said he was a joy to be around. He always had a smile on his face and was excited about whatever they were working on. She said he will always hold a special place in her heart, for she loved him dearly. 

It was an honor to be able to participate in this interview. The Society thanks Robert, Teresa and Darren for allowing the East Lake Historical Society to publish Derek’s story.

Interview by Maggie Fisher and Shirley Meade.

Article by Maggie Fisher

March 12, 2012