Even though I was unable to take my show on the road and give both of my scheduled Roll Models talks in Indiana, I was fortunate enough that one of the clients opted to have me give the talk via webcam instead of canceling it altogether. This meant a lot to me because this presentation was for an audience that has played a major role in my life in multiple ways. First, the organization I was speaking to was the joint educational services in special education corporation (JESSE), which provides services to all students with disabilities in the area where I grew up. Throughout my 13 years of public school JESSE provided services like physical therapy, nursing care, and adaptive technology that helped me achieve academic success. As honored as I was to be able to share my message with an audience that had helped me so much, this talk was even more special to me on a more personal level because of the person who hired me and is now in charge of this organization. This incredible woman, Linda Holland, not only played a huge role in my academic success through JESSE, but also in my life in general. It just so happens that in addition to running JESSE, she was also the mother of my childhood best friend, Andrew, and she ended up being my “second mom” for my entire childhood.
When I was 5 years old I met a happy, sandy-haired boy named Andrew at the daycare we both went to after morning kindergarten, and we quickly became very close friends. As we grew close, we began wanting to spend time together at each other’s houses, like any other boys our age. This was not a problem if Andrew wanted to come over to my house, but we also wanted to play with his toys at his house, which was a different story due to my physical needs and limitations. Up to this point in my life, outside of school and daycare I had never spent time away from my parents. And naturally, they were a little hesitant to send their severely disabled son on a play date to a home where chances are no one had even heard of spinal muscular atrophy, let alone know how to care for me. Fortunately for me though, Andrew’s mom worked with disabled students through JESSE, which meant she was familiar with helping children like myself. This opened the door for me to spend time in their home and greatly impacted my life. After my parents had gotten to know Linda and felt comfortable with her ability to care for me, I was finally able to have my first play date outside of my home. This not only allowed me to have a more typical, healthy social life that opened me up to countless new experiences, but it also began the process of breaking away from my dependence on my folks and creating an independent life for myself.
Over the next 10 years or so, Andrew and I were nearly inseparable, and I spent numerous weekends with the Holland family. What made this even more special to me was that the Holland’s never treated me like a disabled person. I always felt like I was just another member of the family. I went to their family reunions, went mushroom hunting with them in the fields behind their house, and they even built a ramp up to the front door of their home to accommodate my wheelchair. In fact, the location where I was supposed to speak last week was actually a lake house of the Holland’s where I had attended several sleepovers as a kid. These experiences helped me learn how to have a life away from my family in a safe environment, and I am confident that without the way the whole Holland family accepted me my life would look very different. It was this enormous impact that Linda had on my life that made giving my Roll Models talk to JESSE so near and dear to my heart, as it gave me the opportunity to repay not only JESSE, but Linda and the whole Holland family as well.
The talk was titled “Help Them Grow,” and it focused on how seemingly small, insignificant actions now can sometimes have an enormous and profound impact on people’s lives in the future. I use the analogy of planting a maple tree sapling and watering, pruning, and caring for it, knowing full well that you will not be around 50 or 100 years later to see the fruits of your labor in the form of a massive, gorgeous tree that shades the entire block. Just like you go through the mundane tasks to care for that tree with the hopes of future rewards you will likely never see, the seemingly simple, meaningless things you do for others (like the work seemingly done by JESSE at times) can have a huge, long-term impact on their lives. I use examples from my own experiences with JESSE about learning life skills, like the power of humor and the negative effects that excuses can have on your life, through the services they provided for me to illustrate this idea. It is important to keep in mind that even though you may not realize it at the moment, that does not mean that you are not making an impact on someone’s life in ways you would never imagine. They really enjoyed my message, and I hope that as they enter the new school year that they will use my words as motivation to touch the lives of their students the way they did mine.
Getting to give this talk to an audience that was so special to me was an incredible opportunity that I am so thankful for. Being able to repay some of the kindness and support that both JESSE and Linda had shown me as a child through this Roll Models talk was an experience I will never forget. It is always so inspiring when life gives you the chance to pay back the people who were so instrumental in making your life a success. In giving this talk I hope that Linda, the Holland’s, and JESSE know how big of a role they played in creating the happy, independent life that I love so much. I also hope that in some small way that my message can motivate these incredible individuals to continue changing lives, because I am living, breathing proof that with their help even the smallest, sickly sapling like me can grow into a beautiful tree.