Fremont High School seminary teacher overcomes disability

Story and photo by MAKAYLA STOWELL

Jeremy Chatelain wakes up every morning and drives himself to his job at Fremont High School in Ogden, Utah, where he teaches seminary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sounds like a normal day, right? Wrong. Chatelain is a quadriplegic. The simple task of going to his job every day isn’t so simple for him. But he does it anyway because it’s what he loves to do.

Fifteen years ago Chatelain dove off an Idaho bridge into shallow water and broke his neck, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. The accident happened just six weeks after he signed his teaching contract with the LDS church.

Chatelain and his wife of less than a year had just moved to Blackfoot, Idaho, for his teaching career when the accident occurred.

Instead, the couple spent three and a half months at the University Hospital in Salt Lake City while Chatelain went through physical therapy. He said it was the “worst time of our lives.”

When Chatelain was finished with therapy, the young couple moved back to their home in Blackfoot.

Chatelain had been placed on leave from his job due to the accident. He was not quite ready to begin teaching full time so he decided to do some volunteer teaching instead.

After six years of volunteering and part-time teaching, Chatelain was ready to go back to full-time teaching at Blackfoot High School. The adjustment to teaching in a wheelchair wasn’t easy, but he persevered.

Then, Chatelain’s daughter, Sarah, was diagnosed with leukemia. The family had to travel to Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City for her treatment. When the opportunity arose for Chatelain to transfer to a school in Utah, he took it to be closer to the hospital.

Sarah is now 11 years old and cancer free.

During her illness, Chatelain taught at several schools in the Ogden area. The LDS church assigned him to Fremont High School in 2013.

Daren Saunders, the seminary principal at Fremont, said, “I found out pretty quickly how independent he is and how helpful he is to our faculty.”

He knew Chatelain before the accident and knew about his dedication to teaching. Saunders was happy to welcome him to the Fremont seminary staff and have him teach the Gospel of the Church to teenagers.

As the seminary principal, Saunders handles all student requests to switch out of classes. “I have had very few requests to move out of his class, and the ones I have had haven’t even been related to his disability,” Saunders said in an email interview.

“Most of the kids love him and respect him. They find out from day one that his wheelchair doesn’t hold him back in any way from doing what he love to do, and he does it well,” he said.

He added that the seminary staff make sure not to do things that would automatically exclude Chatelain. They carefully plan meetings and retreats and make sure to think about his needs.

“Chatelain is so good to ask everyone for help, trying not to burden any one person,” Saunders said.

The Book of Mormon is the basic doctrine taught by the LDS church.

The Book of Mormon is the basic doctrine taught by the LDS church.

He believes that Chatelain’s disability helps him teach the doctrine of the LDS church. He offers a unique perspective and appreciation of certain beliefs of the church. He helps students to truly understand what it means to endure and persevere, despite life’s challenges and hardships.

“He really is a fantastic teacher. The kids love him and he loves them,” Saunders said.

Kat Flegal, a former student of Chatelain’s, said in an email interview, “I have always greatly admired his strength and great happiness that he has chosen since his accident.”

In addition, she said, “A typical class day with Jeremy wasn’t too much different than other teachers.”

Sometimes students would need to help put papers on the overhead projector, write on the boards or hand out papers. They also had to remember to keep backpacks and coats out of the aisle so Chatelain could wheel his chair through.

“Students were always happy and volunteering to help out,” Flegal said.

She said Chatelain would teach all of his students how to shake his hand at the beginning of the semester. It could be difficult, so he always gave them the option of bumping elbows.

“He was funny and his lessons were always well prepared. I think students like him just as much as any other teacher,” Flegal said.

Because of Chatelain’s injury, he did offer different insight into the teachings of the church.

“I think he applied the gospel to his life to a greater extent than most I know. He could have been bitter about his accident but instead he uses his story and his life to teach and uplift all of his students,” Flegal said.