Natalie Smith wants to be a doctor when she grows up. She also would like to ride a bike.

It’ll be a while before the Helman Elementary fifth-grader can treat a patient, but with the help of her classmates Smith could be pedaling down the road by this time next year, and that would be something special for a girl who’s battled spina bifida and hydrocephalus her whole life.

Smith was chosen by the Sparrow Clubs as one of 60 “Sparrows” statewide for the 2017-18 school year, and was recognized as such during a special assembly Tuesday at Helman. During the assembly, students watched a short video explaining the challenges Smith faces daily, and were invited to donate their time to community service projects in order to raise money for their classmate.

Spina bifida is a birth defect which occurs when the vertebrae don’t form properly around part of the baby’s spinal cord. Symptoms vary, but Smith’s obstacles include partial paralysis, scoliosis and damage to her left optic nerve.

Based in Bend, Sparrow Clubs provides financial and emotional support for children who face medical hardships while also empowering kids to help others through charitable service in their communities, a connection which was outlined during the assembly. For every hour of community service, an anonymous sponsor has pledged $10. The goal, said Helman Principal Michelle Cuddeback, is for Helman to complete a combined 256 hours of community service for $2,560, a haul that would allow Smith to buy a specially designed bike.

That would allow Smith to take part in an activity she gained a special affinity for last school year, when fourth-grade teacher Mark Sherbow outfitted his bike with a tandem attachment so that Smith could join the class on bike rides.

“We are so honored by it,” said Natalie Smith’s mom Lisa of the school’s commitment. “It was a hard step for us because, like I said, we’re a service family. We’re always out there doing the work, and for Natalie to be thought of in that way — and not just Natalie but our family — our first inclination was, ‘Oh gosh, there are so many families out there that are more deserving.’ But then after taking a minute and thinking about it, we thought, goodness, Natalie’s had such a rough go the past year that she is so deserving of being able to get the bike that she wants and having the ability to be honored, to be celebrated.”

“Rough go” is an understatement, even by Natalie Smith’s standards. Last spring, an accident damaged the ventriculoperitoneal shunt which drains excess fluid from her brain to her abdomen, where it’s absorbed. From March until August, Smith underwent five brain surgeries at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland. The shunt was removed and replaced with an external one for 10 days before a permanent shunt was installed under the skin.

“She had a really rough time and a couple times we thought we were going to lose her,” Lisa Smith said. “There was one point where she was sleeping 15 hours a day because her shunt was failing.”

The emergency rendered school impossible, so Natalie Smith didn’t attend Helman the last month and a half of the 2016-17 school year. Only 10 days after the last surgery, Smith was hitting the books again in summer school, trying to catch up.

Smith, who has 17 siblings (14 adopted), is described as sweet, smart, stoic girl with a dry sense of humor. Cuddeback said Smith handled the pressure of the assembly in stride, though stepping into the spotlight isn't something that comes naturally to her. That wasn’t the first time Smith has impressed her principal.

“She’s just the most resilient, compassionate, strong girl that I have had the pleasure of knowing in my 19 years of education,” Cuddeback said. “She’s just amazing, all the different hurdles that she’s had to face and she just rises to the challenge. And even when she’s not feeling well she tries to persevere and she really is an inspiration.”

Lisa Smith echoed that sentiment.

“If I had to sue one word, it would be strength,” she said. “I would say Natalie is spina bifida strong. This is a child that they said would never walk. Not only does she walk, she runs, she climbs, she rides horses. I mean, she’s amazing.”

To make a donation to Natalie Smith’s Sparrow fund, visit sparrowclubs.org and click on the “Donate” tab in the upper right corner.

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.