Kassie Rukstalis Miller grew up as the child of a parent who was HIV Positive and endured the stigma that accompanies that disease. She has channeled her life lessons into helping children as an Elementary School Psychologist for the Paradise Valley Unified School District. Her resilience and perseverance has given her the strength to maintain confidence in her quest to help others. Learn more about Kassie…
Hometown: Granada Hills, CA
First job: My very first job, with the exception of babysitting, was at Walgreens as a cashier for approximately two years.
Favorite AZ restaurant: My favorite AZ restaurant is Bilss ReBAR. I love their mac and cheese, sliders, and nachos! Their Sunday brunch is hard to beat and there is always a great vibe! My friends and I love to go there because of their atmosphere.
Person who has impacted your life the most: My grandmother, Sandy, was the most inspirational person I knew. When she had just had my mother, her husband left her and she worked to raise my mother on her own. She worked for over 20 years as a registered nurse and was completely selfless. In 1996, she realized how unhappy she was in her job and went back to school to become a massage therapist. She joined parents without partners, made a ton of friends and brought happiness back into her life. When I was 13, she had two strokes to her spinal cord and was diagnosed with spinal meningitis; she became a paraplegic. She lived the next 11 years in a nursing home and wheelchair bound but she never let it get to her. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 she decided not to undergo treatment. Those last eight months were filled with unforgettable memories and lots of laughs. We went to Disneyland twice, whale watching, wine tasting, and did multiple family dinners. My grandma’s effervescent love for life inspired to focus on the positives in life and to keep moving forward. Her zeal, love, and persistence has encouraged me to become the woman I am today.
Your biggest accomplishment in your eyes: I recently decided to leave my career as a school psychologist to pursue a career in social justice. Although I am terrified of leaving a vested career, I can no longer idly stand by and allow injustices to be done. Working with students with special needs and being involved in the HIV community for over 20 years, I’ve experienced first hand the violations of rights others are subjected to. I yearn for the opportunity to educate our community and society through hands-on research to fight for the rights of others. I am so excited to be returning for my second masters degree at Arizona State University in Social Justice and Human Rights.
The biggest obstacle you have overcome: When I was nine years old, my mother was diagnosed with AIDS. She quickly began her new regimen of medications, including AZT. I remember how violently ill she was and how scared I was that she would not make it. Nearly 6 months later, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Due to her already suppressed immune system, she immediately had a hysterectomy and soon began chemotherapy and radiation. Luckily, between the time of her AIDS and cancer diagnoses, my mother met the man I now call my father, Alan. We were living in Phoenix at the time and he was living in California. Every Friday, my mother would do her chemotherapy and I would help take care of her and my little sister. My dad drove out every Friday afternoon after work to come help me. I was so grateful to have someone there with me who could provide love and support. I remember one time in particular when my mother was crying in the bathtub asking God to just let her die. I was so scared, I was beyond grateful to have my dad there to help through those difficult times. We ended up moving back to California when I was 11 to live with Alan. Things got exponentially better; my mom was healthy, I had a real family, and I was close to my grandma again! However, when she became paralyzed in 1999 I felt like my world was crashing down around me. My grandma was my best friend and my confidant, I was terrified of losing her. Luckily, I got another amazing 10 years with her. Through all my trials and tribulations, my dad never let me use any of my experiences as a crutch. He encouraged me to move past these experiences and use them as stepping stones to work towards larger goals. I’ll always be forever grateful to him.
Someone who inspires you: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Amal Clooney and Malala Yousafzai are three women who continuously inspire me. All of them have committed their lives and energy to advocating for the rights of others and fighting injustices. Women, as a whole, are such an inspiring body of political ire and movement right now, however, these specific women are lighting the path for others who look to aspire to their efforts one day. When I feel overwhelmed or nervous about changes in my future, I reflect on women like them. Their unwavering fortitude in the face of injustice is a reminder that we can overcome opposition and can make this world a better place.
Favorite quote: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs
Advice to someone pursuing a career path in what you do: Don’t underestimate the value of self-care!!! School psychology is a mentally and emotionally exhausting career that can take a huge chunk out of who you are. You have to be good at leaving work at the door and focus on your family. Boundaries are always a positive, healthy technique to implement in your life but it is imperative when working in a field that is so multidisciplinary and demanding. Being a guide and an advocate for children and families is beyond rewarding but you can lose focus on those gleaming qualities if you become burnt out. Love yourself first so that you can love others!
What you think makes someone fabulous: I think fabulous people are those who put others before themselves; who consistently work towards the betterment of people as a whole. I always say that friends are the family you choose and I am grateful to have the most fabulous friends and boyfriend in my family who continuously go out of their way to support and demonstrate love to others. Without my fabulous friends and family, I would not be where I am today.