For Yale senior, a serendipitous encounter was life-changing

Sports helped Ellis DeJardin, the captain of Yale’s volleyball team, discover her passion for working with adolescents with developmental disorders.
Ellis DeJardin

Ellis DeJardin (Photo by Jack Devlin ’22)

Great athletes like Ellis DeJardin have a gift for anticipating events. And in some ways, DeJardin’s four years at Yale played out how she envisioned them after graduating from an all-girls high school in Pasadena, California.

A prep star in volleyball, she ended up as captain of Yale’s volleyball team and helped the Bulldogs win two league championships. She also sensed that her collegiate academic interests might include psychology. “I loved doing science experiments and I thought people were more interesting than bacteria,” said DeJardin, a resident of Jonathan Edwards College who will graduate this month. “So, psychology was a Hail Mary.”

But life, like sports, always presents surprises. Sure enough, DeJardin loved studying the mind. And as a student research assistant she began working, in particular, with children at risk of developing schizophrenia.

It was in that role that serendipity entered DeJardin’s life in the form of a 14-year-old girl named Kassi. Kassi, who lives just outside of New Haven, suffers from epilepsy and Russell-Silver Syndrome, a growth disorder marked by low birth weight and short stature. The Yale volleyball team had volunteered to be a member of Team Impact, an organization that matches young people with developmental disorders with college sports teams. As it turned out, Kassi ended up at Yale and bonded with DeJardin.

Ellis with a teen

I had had a couple years of experience working with kids anywhere from ages 8 to 18 as a summer volleyball camp coach and always found it fun working with kids and getting to build relationships with them,” DeJardin said. “So getting to work with and know Kassi was a perfect fusion of my passions — getting to work with kids but also helping to build relationships with adolescents with developmental disorders.”

DeJardin also served as a volunteer coordinator with the Special Olympics Committee for the past two years and has arranged for those Olympians to visit Yale teams, tour the facilities, and discuss the values of sportsmanship and personal excellence.

The alignment of sports, academic interests, and creating deep bonds with young people with developmental disorders has helped shape her immediate future. In June, DeJardin starts her new job at the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which will allow her work with adolescents like Kassi as well as continue research into the roots of developmental disorders.

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