Mary Beth Phillips can be forgiven for boasting that her 17-year-old daughter Elizabeth is destined to be governor of California. After all, Elizabeth not only possesses a great smile and disarming poise, but she writes poetry, speaks Latin and earns straight A’s at Oakland’s elite College Preparatory School. A major obstacle to her election, though, could be that Elizabeth doesn’t pussyfoot about stating strong opinions. “I am a closet anarchist,” she says. “My hero is Helen Keller. She was a radical thinker like me.”
Like Keller, Elizabeth crusades for disabled children. And like Keller, she is blind. But unlike her late hero, who was left blind (and deaf) following a childhood illness, Elizabeth was blinded at 6 months by a nanny who shook her so violently that the blood vessels in her eyes burst and she nearly died. Though the nanny was convicted of felonious child abuse, the judge in the case gave her a remarkably lenient sentence—no jail time—and she was allowed to continue caring for children. “I was stupefied,” says Mary Beth, 46. “That’s when I became politically active.”
So, in time, did her daughter, who delivered her first speech in Sacramento at age 3, when Mary Beth was lobbying state lawmakers to create a program to run background checks on nannies. The toddler, who insisted on being introduced by the name of her dog Didi, told the pols, “We need a big rule for grown-ups!” She got it. Today Mary Beth run0073 TrustLine, a state-funded group that answers some 1,000 calls from parents each month, has cleared more than 30,000 caregivers and is considered a model for a national program. And Elizabeth rallies the troops. In January, as the keynote speaker at an international child-advocacy conference in San Diego, she brought many of the 2,000 doctors, teachers, social workers and police officers present to tears. “She floored us all with her spunk and fire,” says pediatrician David Chad-wick, who founded the Center for Child Protection at San Diego’s Children’s Hospital. Elizabeth took the opportunity, for example, to point out that the U.S. is just one of two countries that haven’t ratified the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. “I know the U.S. is self-absorbed,” she said, “but refusing to see children as human beings is evil.” Elizabeth has a daunting agenda: This fall alone she will speak at five events in three states—including the Shaken Baby Conference.
As a baby, Elizabeth—who has two brothers, Andrew, 15, and Daniel, 11—was rarely left with a sitter. But on the evening of June 8, 1983, her father, Bob, now 52 and a health-care consultant, was working late, and Mary Beth, then a graduate student at the California School of Professional Psychology, had a class (“in neuropsychology, ironically enough,” she says) to attend. Elizabeth needed watching for three hours, so a neighbor offered the services of her live-in nanny. Not long after Mary Beth dropped off her baby, the nanny called 911 and Bob. When he arrived and found his daughter unconscious and laboring to breathe, Bob rushed her to the hospital himself, almost certainly saving her life. “He thanks God for doing that every day since,” says Mary Beth.
Unlike many victims of shaken-baby syndrome—who number an estimated 600 to 1,400 annually—Elizabeth surprised doctors by surviving at all. Following an eight-day coma, she awoke temporarily paralyzed and permanently blind. “Babies most often get shaken because they’re crying,” says Mary Beth. “Since Elizabeth was not happy about Mommy being gone, she was probably crying.” Elizabeth says simply, “I’m extremely lucky I didn’t die.”
Most of her peers at school—where Elizabeth is the only blind student—are not aware that their classmate is an activist. To them, she is simply a girl who totes two huge backpacks (filled with braille textbooks), sings in the choral group and adores Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks. Still, Elizabeth admits that her blindness can be isolating. “Some kids don’t like you if you aren’t like everyone else,” she says. “Plus it’s harder because if someone wants to be my friend, they have to seek me out because I can’t see them.” Not that she lets that—or anything else—slow her down. “I build relationships around how people treat me,” Elizabeth says, adding, “My mom thinks I’m stubborn, but I think that’s good.” Mary Beth sees it a bit differently. “You have perseverance,” she says. “And that is a good quality.” Especially in a future governor.