Friday, June 7, 2013
Two weeks ago I talked about how important my wheelchair is to my life. It lets me do almost anything an able-bodied person can do any time I want to do it. I may be a bit slower at some things, but as that great American sage, Larry the Cable Guy, says, I can “git ‘er done.” And for all its practical value, my wheelchair represents much more. It is a symbol.
To those who don’t know any better, my wheelchair is a symbol of victimhood. I can almost read their thoughts as they pass across their brow. “Poor guy. What a terrible fate….Thank God it’s not me.” It’s a a symbol to these people that I am limited, and if I am physically limited, it follows that I must be mentally limited as well. When I see this reaction, I just smile at the people and hope that time will bring them wisdom and understanding. The truth is that my thinking is not limited, and my physical limitations are not that, well, limited either. Consider that I go anywhere I want whenever I want. I have a wife and a child. I exercise regularly. I have a loving and fun group of friends, and I am productive in the community. Not so limited in my view.
The second symbol is one of human ingenuity. My wheelchair is designed with care and keen attention to detail. I have a power wheelchair for long treks and a manual one for rumbling around the house. I can go up and down hills. I can turn on a dime. I can cover miles in a mall. It’s just the right size to let me open doors and pass through most doorways. In so many ways, it is life giving. It was made with a profound understating of what my needs are, and it is a capable substitute for my legs. I love it, and I love that in the years before my accident some very smart people put a lot of care into designing it and making it reliable. I am standing on the shoulders of my predecessors who described to the engineers and manufacturers what they needed and what would work best. I am the beneficiary of their good work, and I thank these unknown, unseen donors for the gift they gave me.
I guess the point is that if you live in a wheelchair, you think a lot about it. I sometimes yell at mine when it’s not behaving exactly the way I want, and I whisper words of encouragement when my chair and I are navigating some particularly tough terrain. Americans have long had a love affair with their trucks and cars. Mine is with my wheelchair.
Have a great week.
For more information on my missions or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com
Friday, May 24, 2013
If you live in a wheelchair, you inevitably spend a lot of time thinking about your ‘best friend.’ In fact, you may even begin to personify this hunk of metal with tires that provides you with your full measure of mobility. For me, after long experience and great thought, I have come to regard my wheelchair as my partner. It is a substitute for my legs, a remarkable device that lets me live fully and independently. Sometimes it can be a bit cranky, but it is always reliable. Cranky like when the brakes don’t work properly or when it starts to roll down an incline seemingly on purpose and with malice. The bottom line is that I love my life, and I love my wheelchair because it helps me live life so fully.
Many people look at me and momentarily feel pity, perhaps because they envision themselves in the same situation and wonder how they would cope. The truth is that most of them would cope quite well. Yes, there are many issues to deal with. For example, poor circulation, which can lead to many medical problems. But this is manageable. What’s not manageable is being cooped up, unable to get around on my own, and dependent on others for all transportation. It turns out, I have none of those problems. My wheels and I can go virtually anywhere. Perhaps not in the swimming pool, but otherwise there are no limitations. I roll along at supermarkets, go to sporting events, attend church, , and most importantly, I speak almost every week in front of a groups of kids and adults. This satisfies my teaching impulse and leaves the audience with a lasting memory. I hope it changes their lives for the better in some small way.
All that said, there is one group of people I must always watch out for. Kids in the 4-8 year-old range. Many of them think my wheelchair is the coolest toy they’ve ever seen. On more than one occasion when I was reaching for the Honey Nut Cheerios in the food store, I have found myself rolling well in excess of any rational speed limit impelled by some intrepid youngster laughing in glee. I try to be on the lookout, but some of these kids are clever. They eye me from a distance and make their move when I’ve averted my gaze. It goes with the territory, and while there’s the chance of crashing into canned peas or string beans, it’s always kind of fun.
The point of this blog is that wheelchairs are a great gift to me and everybody who lives in one. They provide mobility. They provide independence. And above all, they give people with spinal cord injuries a great sense of confidence. The truth is, there’s very little an able-bodied person can do that I can’t. And given where I was at the moment of my accident, this is a pretty good place to be.
For More information on my missions or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com .
Friday, May 17, 2013
The month of May is always an exciting but fearful time for parents with teenaged children. It is also the month of Prom for many schools. Teachers fret the details of the weeks leading up to graduation. Kids eagerly anticipate their junior or senior prom. And parents do what they do best. They worry.
Parents have good reason to worry. Teenagers are not known for their good judgment. Poor impulse control, peer pressure, and a few drinks can lead to nightmare scenarios and the worst decisions possible. Adults know this and do their best to advise their kids. Kids tune them out. It’s the way of the world, and it’s dangerous.
My business time of year is in May when high schools are planning their junior and senior proms. This is a time for kids to learn new social skills, to test themselves, and all too often to let down inhibitions they are normally in touch with. The worst thing of all is that it’s often a time when kids drink and drive. And there’s no worse combination.
During April and May, schools reach out and ask me to speak with their junior and senior classes in the hope that I will be a vivid and visual example of what can happen if you let your guard down for even a moment. One momentary lapse in judgment, one misstep, and your life can turn on a dime. Worse yet, you can maim or even kill an innocent third party all in the name of a foolish impulse. Is it really worth it? Of course not, but I don’t preach because it doesn’t work. I inspire and motivate. I joke around with the kids, I tell stories about rehab, I show pictures of my car twisted and bent in half with me inside it, and I let them draw their own conclusions. I’ve learned that telling kids what to do and what not to do is the wrong way to go. After all, they know so much more than we do. Hmmm. The real answer is to tell stories and parables, show some pictures, and let doing the right thing be their idea. If it’s their idea, kids become invested in it. If you insist on making it your idea, then it’s just something to be challenged or ignored.
Kids are great, and I love working with them. They need to learn the skills to make good decisions, and that’s what my appearances are all about. All in all, one junior and one senior at a time, I think the message gets through. One thing I know for sure is that if there’s one benefit to living life in a wheelchair because of a drunk driver, it’s I can help others avoid the same fate. That’s a pretty good benefit.
To for more information on my missions or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit www. StillStandingWithDwight.com
Friday, May 10, 2013
“That guy is driving way too fast,” I said to myself as I glanced in the rearview mirror. “He’ll probably just pass me,” I thought, and I turned my attention back to the wet road ahead. It was rainy afternoon, and I wanted to keep my eyes in front of me.
BAM! I felt a hard jolt and immediately swerved into the ditch colliding with a tree. I had just enough time to say a short prayer before passing out and not regaining consciousness until I found myself in the emergency room. I had massive internal injuries, a severed spine, and only a slight chance to survive.
The driver who hit me was a 71-year old drunk who had been convicted of numerous DUIs in recent years. He was driving an unregistered truck and without a license. I lay on my back undergoing surgery after surgery, suffering unrelenting pain, and condemned to a wheelchair for the rest of my life. That is if I survived at all. I did, and so did Herman Posey, the drunk driver.
“That rat bastard is walkin’ around free without a word of apology,” said Cedrick, my older and sometimes hot-headed brother. “We gotta do something about this,” he suggested to me and the others assembled in my hospital room. There was a low murmuring of agreement as everybody turned their attention to me wanting to see how I would respond. I waited a minute and gave my answer.
“No, Cedrick,” I said. “That’s not the answer. I have to focus on me and my recovery. I need your help to do it. If I worry about revenge and trying to set matters right, that won’t make me walk again. In fact, it will only hurt me. We have to let the system do whatever it’s gonna do, and we need to focus on my health. That’s what matters most to me.”
I don’t know where I found the wisdom or courage for that response because I was truly angry at what Posey had done to me. But I knew I had no future without finding a way to forgive, and in that single moment, I think I took my most important step toward recovery.
There seemed to be a collective sigh of relief in the hospital room when I gave my answer, and Cedrick went along with it. I can tell you it took two years of surgeries, grueling and painful rehab, and many setbacks along the way, but I am now as happy as I have ever been in my life. I have a wife whom I love profoundly. I have a child that makes me smile day and night, even when she gets her schedule upside down and won’t let me sleep. I have a job I love speaking to groups of high school and college students across the south and to a host of other organizations. I drive anywhere I want to go, and I do anything I need to do. Sometimes when Tamika and Brailey are both asleep, I sit there and smile and thank God for the way my life has turned out. And the only thing I know for sure is this. If I had not forgiven Posey and focused on revenge instead of recovery, none of these wonderful things would have happened. Forgiveness is a path toward grace, and it benefits the forgiver far more than the forgiven.
God bless you all.
Visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com for more information on my story or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing."
Friday, May 3, 2013
S.T.A.R.S (Striving Toward Awareness and Respect For Self)
C.H.A.M.P.S (Changing Hearts Attitudes and Minds for Personal Success)
Readers of this blog know how much I admire the spirit of volunteerism and the notion of giving back to the community. Perhaps it’s because of my own upbringing, but the organizations I like most are ones that help children. And that’s what “Stars and Champs” is all about.
I grew up in a rural, poor county in Mississippi, and even in the best of times, life was never easy. We had some income, but not much. We hunted, fished, and tended our own gardens to put food on the table. Clothes were passed down from older brother to younger brother until they were too threadbare to wear. My younger brother, Voncarie, got the worst of it. He was the youngest, and jeans and shirts would go from Cedric, my older brother, to me, to Voncarie. By the time he got them, they were barely hanging together by a thread. Growing up this way can build character, promote frugality, and help you develop a love of family. Sometimes, however, especially in urban settings like the City of Memphis, kids fail to develop self-confidence, and they nurture a sense of hopelessness instead of hope. That’s what Stars and Champs combats every day, and they do a terrific job.
Some years ago a wonderful lady named Johnnice Ulmer started Stars and Champs in Memphis before bringing it to Mississippi, and its purpose is to provide individual mentors for children in the 3rd through 12th grades. Each child has an individual mentor, and that mentor commits to stay with the child through high school graduation. They often stay longer. Child by child, case by case, the program supports the mentors who support the children. The kids get help with homework, go to events with their mentor, become friends with their mentor’s family, have a shoulder to lean on, and get a role model to help them through rough patches. While the kids in this program may not be underprivileged, many are underserved and miss many of the opportunities of those in larger urban areas. These kids need additional help and attention to enhance and improve those areas that families do not have available. No program can be 100% successful, but this one gives a life line to many. It is hard, enduring work, but that hard work pays off.
Johnnice moved to Mississippi and has started the same program in her new town of Laurel. The program has an indomitable spirit and a proven track record of success. I have met with Johnnice, spoken before many of the kids in the program, and fallen in love with their work. These kids are bright-eyed, energetic, and big hearted. They are not yet well educated academically or in the ways of the world, but they are heading in the right direction. Their mentors are committed to them, and the kids are grateful for the help.
Unfortunately, the Stars and Champs is in the last year of being funded. The program will continue despite the loss of funding, but it will need your support. The program is located at Sawmill Square Mall in Laurel, MS. Donations can also be made at http://starschamps.com/index.html .
It’s hard to measure the success of programs like Stars and Champs, but when you see kids who spend six or eight years with their mentor come back and become mentors themselves, you just know it works. Child by child. Case by case. Bravo to Stars and Champs. They are making a difference where it counts.
To learn more about my missions, to get involved, or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com .
Friday, April 26, 2013
There are times when I suddenly realize just how much I love my life, and one of those times was last week. The administration of Spain Park High School in Birmingham, Alabama invited me to speak to their faculty and student body, so I packed up my truck and made the five hour trek the day before. I did the same thing for Hoover High School in Birmingham last year, and it only seemed fair to meet with Hoover’s rival, the Spain Park Jaguars, as well. I’m glad I did.
I’m from Mississippi, and our natural rival is Alabama. I pull for the Golden Eagles and the Running Rebels at every turn, but life in ‘Bama centers around the Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers. And while this football and basketball rivalry is fierce, it ends on the field. When it comes to hospitality, the people of Alabama can’t be beat.
When I arrived last Thursday, I spent an hour with the faculty first thing in the morning, and they were as generous of spirit as anybody could be. I gave my testimony, and the thing that the teachers focused on most was forgiveness.
“Dwight, how were able to forgive Posey, the drunk driver who severed my spine, I so quickly?” asked one teacher. “I don’t think I could have done it.”
My answer was simple. “After the accident, I needed to focus on me, on my own recovery and my own health. If I focused on revenge and on Posey, I probably wouldn’t be here. Forgiveness is freedom.” I emphasized every day and every second counting for something.
As wonderful as the faculty was, the kids were even better. They were more interested in justice and jail time for Posey than forgiveness, but they peppered me with questions at each session. I spoke to each class in turn from the ninth graders to the seniors, and each class was more receptive and attentive than the one before. They quickly got over any shyness and asked honest, direct questions.
“Can you drive?” Yes. (I’ m totally independent.)
“How can you drive in a wheelchair?” (Not as hard as you’d think. I drive with my hands)
“Do you enjoy taking care of your daughter Brailey?” (Yes. It’s my favorite job.)
“Do you ever tip over in the wheelchair?” (Hmm. A few times, but I have also rolled uncontrollably down a hill and smashed into a car. Lol.)
"Why are you so full of joy?" (Because I'm still here!)
They heard about my surgeries. They learned about my grueling rehab. And most importantly, they saw first-hand what one self-indulgent, thoughtless act could do to another human being. Did they really want that on their conscience? I think they all asked themselves that question, and I think they knew the answer.
Actions have consequences, and while I want kids to be kids and test themselves in every reasonable way, I don’t want them drinking and driving or making any choices they will later on regret. Nobody wins, and they saw that first hand. I didn’t preach or lecture. In fact, I laughed a lot. But the message was clear all the same, and they got it. Drinking and driving is no laughing matter, and as prom night nears for Spain High, I think many of them will keep that message in mind. I hope so.
I take off my hat to faculty and students of Spain High. They were wonderful hosts, generous listeners, and more than friendly to their Mississippi neighbor.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Most of us take it for granted, but driving is liberation. It’s mobility. It’s freedom. And for me, it was probably the most important thing in regaining my confidence and self reliance after my accident. My dear friend and author of “Still Standing,” Jon Praet, is legally blind. That seems an odd condition for a writer, but he can zoom the computer to 250% and manage quite well. What he can’t do is drive. And while he handles his vision problems with humor and dignity, at least most of the time, his one persistent complaint is that he can no longer drive. I understand his longing better than most.
I’ve written about this before, but the day I got my truck after it had been modified so I could control speed and breaking with levers on the steering column, I left Tamika and my mom in the driveway and took off. I just said, “See you later,” and went off for the day. I went to Jackson and back, drove throughout my county, and didn’t even let bad drivers annoy me. I had a smile on my face all day, and it was glorious. I probably took it a bit too far because I didn’t even answer my cell phone. I returned that evening to two very angry women who couldn’t wait to let me have it.
“Dwight, you didn’t even answer your cell phone,” Tamika said angrily. “You could have been in a ditch or had an accident. That was thoughtless and rude.”
“Yeah, Dwight,” my mom said because she was anxious to join the fray. “You had us worried sick. What were you thinking? I’ll tell you what you were thinking. You weren’t thinking at all.”
This went on for fifteen minutes, and if one lost steam, the other picked up the slack. They were a tag team dedicated to the proposition that I should feel miserable for my sin. I finally gave my answer after we all took a collective breath.
“I know it was thoughtless of me, and I apologize,” I said. “But understand this. For the past year plus I have been flat on my back or rolling around in a wheelchair. Even though I’ve tried to do everything I can for myself, up to now, other people had to drive me everywhere. For the first time in over a year, I felt freedom. I could go where I wanted, drive alone with my thoughts, and feel a sense of independence that you two take for granted every day. I am sorry, and I know I was inconsiderate, but I loved every minute of it. I can finally do all those things you do and don’t even think about, and it feels great.”
It was more of an explanation than an apology, and mom and Tamika still had to nurse their anger a while longer, but they understood. Mom went home after complaining about me throughout dinner, and she couldn’t quite leave without getting the last word.
“Dwight, I forgive you, but I raised you to be more thoughtful than you were,” she said. “Do it again, and I’ll throw your keys in the pond.”
Tamika, who is also fond of getting the last word, said: “You won’t have to, Lesa. I’ll drive his truck in the pond first.”
And with that, we made up, and I think we all learned some lessons. They understood just how important it was for me to drive again, and I agreed that I would never take off for the day and ignore their phone calls. I think we all grew a little bit that day.
As of now, no one can take me off the road as I continue to strive to bring joy and inspiration to the lives of others.
Friday, April 5, 2013
I like to write about people and organizations that make a difference in this blog. One of the best of these is Forrest General Hospital. This may seem an odd choice because hospitals are engaged in the business of making people better. Of course, Forrest General does this in spades. They saved my life and put me back on the path to health. That’s their job. But the truth is, they do much, much more.
I have kept up my relationship with Forrest General over the past eight years because of the genuine care they show for their patients. This isn’t simply a paragraph in some operational manual, it’s their way of doing business. They have ongoing staff meetings with senior administrators, doctors, nurses, and other hospital professionals to review feedback from patients and make course corrections to improve their service. They invite patients back to speak to hospital staff about what was good and was, well, less good about their stay in the hospital. They constantly review their operations, and they are open to change. In short, they are willing to admit they can do it better, and then they do.
A few months back, I spoke before a large group of professionals in the hospital. They wanted to hear about my month-long experience in the hospital, and no critique was off limits. I spent a lot of tie in the hospital after my accident, and I had a lot to say. In my case, I wanted the hospital staff to understand that it’s important to show something of their personalities, to show me who they are. I already knew they were experts at what they did, but medicine is more than just diagnosis and treatment.
I told them about my favorite doctor in the world, Dr. Duncan Donald, who is a trauma surgeon. But he’s more than that. Each time I dealt with Dr. Donald, he spoke with me in an open and frank way. He explained in non-technical terms what they were about to do and why they were doing it. He told me what to expect, described possible complications, and patiently answered my questions. He explained why each procedure was necessary, and what I was likely to feel as a result. Dr. Donald was also willing to share a joke or a story and put me at ease. He exuded confidence and concern for my wellbeing, and in my view, that’s every bit as important as all the technical knowledge in the world. Dr. Donald wasn’t the only person like that, there were many others. And over time, I came to trust the staff at Forrest General and realize that I wasn’t just a patient to fix and move along. I was truly their “client” and the focus of their attention.
What Forrest General does makes a difference. This hospital reaches out to the community, seeks input and feedback from the people who need their services, and is open-minded. They want their staff to focus on the entire patient, not just on the case before them, and while no hospital visit is ever pleasant, they make it as bearable and painless as possible. That’s my idea of what a great hospital is all about.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
My wife Tamika and I have been happily married for almost six years now, and our joy in each other has only grown deeper with the arrival of our first child, our beautiful daughter Brailey, this past December. Tamika and I knew before we got married that we wanted children, but it took a little longer than we expected. The wait was worth it.
When we brought Brailey home in December, every gurgle, every cough, every noise was cause for concern. We were brand new parents, and it took a while to understand that this fragile, precious creature in our care was really much sturdier than either of us knew. Brailey has been a wonderful teacher for Tamika and me, although she’s sometimes a bit impatient when we don’t get it quite right fast enough. We have come to learn what the coos, gurgles, cries, and various noises mean. We have come to learn her language, so to speak, and she is remarkably expressive. Brailey has learned to coo and gurgle and laugh with delight, and she has stolen our hearts. And sometimes that’s a problem.
Weeks before Tamika had to go back to work as a high school guidance counselor, she started tearing up at the thought of it.
“Dwight, this is going to break my heart,” Tamika told me one day. She was anticipating the worst, which may be a good thing because in the end, it wasn’t that bad. We found reliable day care for Brailey, and each morning Tamika dresses herself and the baby, spends an hour with Brailey before heading off to work, and brings Brailey to day care about a mile from the school. The day care center is terrific, and they also have cameras that we can tie into our computers so we can see Brailey any time we want. That gives both of us a great deal of reassurance. In addition, the employees at the day care center have become like family to us.
One day shortly after Tamika went back to work and Brailey joined the world of day care, I glanced at the screen to see what Brailey was up to. I was shocked. There was a woman there leaning over our baby and kissing her. I immediately got on the phone and called Tamika.
“Tamika, there’s some woman leaning over our baby kissing on her,” I said with concern.
Tamika paused for a second and let out a big laugh. “Dwight, you big goof, that’s me.”
Well, like most men, I hadn’t paid any attention to what Tamika was wearing that day, and I could only see her from behind because of the camera angle. Tamika went to check in on Brailey. At the end of the day, Tamika was pleased that I had been watching the screen and called her, although she continued to call me a goof for not knowing it was her.
What I do know from all this is that Brailey has already done much in her short life. She has made herself the object of our affection and brought Tamika and me even closer. Our hearts leap with joy when we see Brailey, and we smile constantly at this new addition to our life. Tamika, a happy and loving wife already, is now filled with a new joy. And that makes me happy too.
To learn more about my story or to purchase "Still Standing," visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com
Friday, March 22, 2013
A life time ago when I was 22 and had just graduated college, I was filled with excitement about the road ahead. I had a job teaching math and technology, and I was on my way to becoming a football coach. That was my dream, and the world was mine to conquer. I had a few dollars in my pocket and a new car. Things were too good to even think they might change, and I couldn’t wait to take on each new challenge. Fate, however, had other plans, and my life was turned upside down one rainy afternoon by a 71-year old drunk driver.
Before my accident, I gave little thought to the community around me. I was too busy being full of myself. Too busy starting out on my new career, too busy dreaming of becoming a head football coach, and too busy simply engaging in all the things young men dream about. After my accident, I became busy with other things. I was busy recovering from surgeries. I was busy learning how to use a wheelchair. What I didn’t know is that I was also busy learning all the things volunteers, my church, my family, and my community did to support me. That understanding came more slowly, but over time it became part of who I am and the man I would become.
People volunteered to raise funds for my medical expenses. People volunteered to do things at my home. People volunteered to spend time with me and take me on excursions. It seemed like there was an army of volunteers pitching in to help me get my life back. And while I was grateful throughout, it has taken almost a decade for me to realize just how important all these people really were to me. They did what they did out of love. They were not seeking reward or recognition. They were not seeking anything for themselves other than the knowledge that their help was needed, and they would answer the call. With almost a decade in the rear view mirror, I now understand what volunteering is all about, and it has become a core part of my life.
Volunteering means knowing you can make a difference. Volunteering means engaging with your community and extending yourself beyond your direct personal interest. Volunteering sometimes means giving tough love, and it always means giving encouragement. Volunteering means knowing you have something you can offer to people who need it, and then doing the practical things to make it happen. In the past few years, my volunteering has meant mentoring people who met with sudden and life threatening disabilities like spinal cord injuries. It has also meant speaking countless times before high school and college groups about personal responsibility and the risks of drinking and driving. What I also learned is that volunteering filled me with a joy I hadn’t fully understood. It has meant making a difference in somebody’s life, even if I didn’t always know who that person was. Mostly volunteering has meant being part of something bigger than myself.
I don’t mean to preach, but we can all find the time to contribute. We just have to make it a priority. The rewards come back tenfold, and the feeling of self satisfaction can’t be matched. Every community needs our support, and it just seems right to give a little back in recognition of all the good things we get.
Have a great week.
To learn more about my missions or to purchase my book, visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com
Friday, March 15, 2013
I have been associated with L.I.F.E (Living Independence For Everyone) of Mississippi since shortly after my accident, and they are a remarkable group of people. LIFE is headed by Christy Dunaway, and she was born a triple amputee. Christy also has more energy, joy, and ability than any other five people I know combined. She was raised with the same expectations as any other child, volunteered at a children’s hospital as a youth, and graduated college in 1985. She does everything you and I can do. It is this drive to live independently, this desire to contribute to her community that brought her to LIFE. Christy became the Director of LIFE for Central Mississippi in 1995 and then for the entire state in 2000. She has inspired thousands along the way and helped the hopeless find hope. Perhaps more importantly, she has shown them through her own personal example how to be self-sufficient.
So what does LIFE do and how do they do it? LIFE grew out of a band of patriots with disabilities who stood up in 1993 and claimed they could be as productive as anybody else in the marketplace. It turns out, they were right. This coalition submitted a grant request, received initial funding, and hasn’t looked back since. Along with the Project LINC (Linking Individuals Into Neighborhoods & Communities) program, LIFE currently serves well over 1000 people in the state with major disabilities like blindness, amputation, and spinal cord injury. And they are hands on. They don’t just preach their particular gospel, they live it. I know this because I worked with LIFE for two years, and most of the employees at LIFE have some type of disability. You wouldn’t know it to see them work, however, or perhaps you would. You may see someone blind walking from cubicle to cubicle as if they had perfect vision. You may see people in wheelchairs diagnosing computer glitches and or mentoring someone. You may see amputees organizing public outreach and running business meetings. But mostly you would see these people in the field working one-on-one with newly disabled people helping them learn practical things like maneuvering around their apartments or taking plates off a shelf or learning simply learning to be independent.
LIFE’s exclusive mission is to give people with disabilities the confidence and skills to go their way on their own. Person-by-person, day-by-day, they offer people a new sense of hope, pride, and self reliance. This not only brings great happiness to the person learning these skills, it helps families and the broader community. In fact, many, probably even most, of the employees at LIFE are alumnae of their program. And when they go to work at LIFE, there are proud with no excuses. Every person, no matter the disability, is expected to do their job to the highest standards in the profession. To my way of thinking, that’s a pretty good program.
I feel honored to know Christy and to call LIFE family.
For more information on LIFE and their services, visit www.LifeofMS.com
To learn more about my story, my mission, or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com
Friday, March 1, 2013
It’s hard to say you really love a company. Maybe Nike or Blue Bell ice cream, but there aren’t many. In their cases, though, I just like the product. In the case of Cabot Creamery, I love the company and its culture. Here’s why.
Cabot Creamery has a philosophy that builds company awareness and customer loyalty not only through the quality of their products, after all, they are the “makers of the world’s best cheddar,” but through their community spirit and sense of volunteerism. And that’s not the way most companies do things. They embrace a belief that what goes around comes around, and if they support the community around them, the community will support them as well. It’s a philosophy that seems to work. No, scratch that. It’s a philosophy that does work. Here are some examples.
Every year or so, Cabot hosts a Celebrity Cruise, but their celebrities are not the people you normally think of. Their celebrities are local heroes. They are people nominated by their community for the service they give every day with no thought of reward. Cabot’s celebrities are the volunteer EMT who has answers the early morning call every time for twenty years, the home town leader who has organized their friends and neighbors to provide food and clothing for a local homeless shelter, the teacher who created a program for at risk kids and works every weekend to support it. And, yes, even me, the person who suffered a spinal cord injury and shares his story at schools and rehab centers in the South. Cabot spends its marketing dollars supporting local communities, not adding more noise and jingles to the airwaves.
|Roberta Macdonald, Senior VP of Cabot Creamery|
A second example is the “Put A Bad Beat On Hunger” no limit Texas holdem poker tournament they sponsor at Borgata Casino each year in Atlantic City for the benefit of the New Jersey FoodBank. They promote the event, increase awareness of the critical work this organization does to save lives and help people pull themselves out of poverty, and donate a large portion of the proceeds to the charity.
Events like these and many others they sponsor require great attention to detail, a lot of time and planning, and money. Somehow, Cabot has found a magic elixir. They invest their marketing dollars in the community in ways that lift the lives of thousands. Their reward is twofold. They have the satisfaction of knowing they’ve done something worthy, and word spreads about the company at the same time. Customer by customer, they have built a client base that is fiercely loyal, and they do it by bringing a great product to the marketplace and supporting the very people and communities who support them. To my way of thinking, that’s a company you can actually say you love.
For more information on my story, my missions, or to purchase a copy of “Still Standing,” visit my original website at www.StillStandingWithDwight.com .
Friday, February 22, 2013
Some people are uncomfortable around people with disabilities. It’s a fact of life that everybody knows, and it still catches me by surprise. To my able-bodies readers out there, I urge you to stop being so politically correct. If a woman is blind, she knows it. If a man’s in a wheelchair, I guaranty you he knows it. The problem is that so many able-bodied people simply don’t know how to behave around us. So let me give you a few clues.
1. Don’t just ignore the elephant in the room. For example, a woman recently told me she likes to walk in the morning. Then she gasped as if she had said something dreadful because I’m in a wheelchair and tried to hide that gasp. In her mind, it was politically incorrect to use the word “walk.” Wrong. I know all about walking and running. I did it for years and years, and it’s what people do. It’s not offensive to me or anybody else in a wheelchair. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind or avoid certain words. Stop worrying that we’ll be insulted. We’re not.
2. It’s not nice to stare, but if you do, don’t avert your eyes when you get busted. I understand that you don’t see a person in a wheelchair every day, and I understand you want to look. I’ll even smile at you when you do and perhaps start a conversation. But when you avert your eyes and turn away, we can’t make any progress. You feel embarrassed, and I feel like I’ve lost an opportunity. So stop doing it.
3. Offer help with small things, but don’t be offended if we tell you we’d rather do it ourselves. I’m always grateful when somebody stops to open a door for me, and I thank them for that simple courtesy. It’s a good thing. That person should be rewarded with a smile and a word of thanks. But, for example, if I’m in a store trying to grab the Cheerios off the shelf with my gripper, don’t be offended if I say: “Thanks, but I’d rather work it out on my own.” You see, we want to be as self reliant as possible, and sometimes we have to work a little harder. Don’t let your feelings get bruised. Instead, understand that we are trying to manage our lives and do as many of the little things on our own as we can.
4. Engage. Don’t be afraid. Most of us don’t bite, and very few of us have rabies. The ones that do are mostly in the north anyway. We like to talk and even tell a few off-color jokes once in a while. We work in your neighborhood, volunteer at community events, vote Republican sometimes but not often, and work for a living. A broken spine is not a broken mind. I like to use mine and even share it with you.
The bottom line is this. Like the rest of the community, some of us are smart, some not. Some are white, some black. Some are ignorant, some well informed. Some are grouchy, some cheerful. We are all these things in the same proportion as the able-bodied community. You, my able-bodied friend, must learn to overlook the obvious and engage with us as people. We will enjoy it, and you will be enriched for it.
End of sermon.
For more information on my story, my missions, or to purchase a copy of Still Standing, visit my website at www.StillStandingWithDwight.com .
Friday, February 15, 2013
There are several companies and organizations that I have a great fondness for. One is Cabot Creamery Cooperative, and they will be the subject of a later blog. Another is the Staten Island Giving Circle founded by Evelyn Kormanik. I met Evelyn when we both were awarded for volunteer excellence on Cabot Creamery’s Celebrity Cruise. Evelyn has a huge heart, great organizational skills, and an infectious personality. Her husband, Mike, also has a huge heart and is spectacular at supporting everything the Giving Circle does. She has been active in volunteering all her life, but her most intriguing venture came in January 2008 when she established the Staten Island Giving Circle. I have spent a lot of time with this group and even made a presentation before a local Boy Scout troop about a year ago at their request.
In early 2008, Evelyn made a New Year’s resolution to form her own charitable group. Then she acted on that resolution. She invited many like-minded friends from her book club, tennis league, and church to discuss a program that they would run themselves. Some 25 people came to her home for that first meeting, and word soon began to spread. The group is now some 150 strong, and they meet each month. Every member contributes at least $10 for a raffle they hold in the house, and most people purchase $20-$50 in extra tickets. They choose two winners, split the proceeds down the middle, and distribute the money to the charities of the winners’ choice. Over the past five years, they have raised over $60,000 for foundations supporting research for Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, Lupus, and Breast Cancer. They have made contributions to the Wounded Warriors Foundation, the Coalition of Children in Need in Haiti, and many others. They also support many local groups such as food pantries, shelters for the homeless, and homes for victims of domestic abuse.
Most recently as a result of Hurricane Sandy, the Giving Circle has directed their efforts locally. Staten Island was brutalized by this hurricane, and there are still countless thousands without homes or shelter. Evelyn and her group have invited distressed neighbors to live in their homes during this tough stretch, and they have delivered water, food, blankets, clothing, and all manner of necessities for their neighbors living in shelters. They have never been afraid to get their hands dirty. Their work has made a huge difference for the people who need it most in their community, and there’s no sign that they’re slowing down.
The Staten Island Giving Circle has received numerous awards for their outstanding works of service. I have become great friends with some of the members, such as Lori and Tina. I feel honored to have Evelyn, Mike, and the Staten Island Giving Circle as family.
Says Evelyn: “The needs out there are vast, and we can’t fix every problem. But we can sure help some people. It brings me joy every day to know my friends and I are making a real difference for some of the neediest among us.” That’s how they live their lives every day, and that’s how they make a difference.
If you want to know more about the Staten Island Giving Circle or if you want to get involved, visit www.StatenIslandGivingCircle.com.
For more information on my story, my missions, or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit my website at www.StillStandingWithDwight.com.
Friday, February 8, 2013
There are many people who represent the spirit of “Still Standing,” and Ishaunna Gully is one of them. About eleven years ago at the age of twenty, Ishaunna was sitting quietly at home with her son’s father when she heard a loud banging on the front door. She didn’t have time to open it before her ex-boyfriend burst in screaming at her in a jealous rage. He was jealous that she was moving on with her life. Things quickly went from bad to worse as he pulled out a gun and shot Ishaunna and her son’s father, leaving them both for dead. They both survived, but Ishaunna had taken a bullet in the back, which fractured her spinal cord. She is paralyzed from the waist down.
I knew some of Ishaunna’s story. Even though we had crossed each other’s path many times before, I only met her face-to-face, or wheelchair-to-wheelchair, for the first time after writing my story. Ishaunna and I had so much in common, yet we had somehow missed out on each other until she approached me after reading “Still Standing.”
“Dwight, I’m Ishaunna,” she said after rolling over to me in her wheelchair. “I am so glad you wrote your story. We have much in common.” Since then, we have become the best of friends.
Like me, Ishaunna was paralyzed from the waist down. She had gone through extensive surgeries and a grueling rehab, and she had found a way to go forward with a smile on her face. But she had a good reason. Her son Willis was her gift. He needed “Mommy,” and Ishaunna was not about to give up. She thought about giving up but knew she had a compelling reason to go on. She found courage in her faith and in knowing that she had a job to do. She had to raise her son. Willis is now 13 and doing great. Day after day, month after month, Ishaunna worked through the psychology and physical agony to make herself strong and independent. Even now, the bullet from the gun is still lodged in Ishaunna’s spine. She endured the pain with grace and dignity and learned once again how to do all the little things that she had taken for granted all her life. She couldn’t walk, but she could sure get around on her wheelchair. She couldn’t stand, but she could sure cook like a pro. And above all, she could sure be a loving mother to her son. Ishaunna’s mother helped her, and many other pitched in, and in time Ishauna rebuilt her life.
Ishaunna now works for Project LINC Americorps. As a part of LIFE, (Living Independence for Everyone), Ishaunna has turned her personal tragedy into a living example for countless others. She went back to school, got her Associate Degree, and will start at my alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi this fall to complete her studies. She counsels newly disabled people and teaches them how to regain their confidence and live self sufficiently. She also speaks out against domestic violence. But mostly, Ishaunna is an example for the people around her. As she often tells her newly-disabled clients: “I’m proof that you can have a good and meaningful life.” And everybody knows these are not just hollow words. A good and meaningful life is exactly what she is living. I am proud to call Ishaunna my friend. She is truly Still Standing.
For more information on my story, my missions, or to purchase a copy of “Still Standing,” visit my website at www.StillStandingWithDwight.com .
Friday, February 1, 2013
My daughter Brailey arrived seven weeks ago, and I think she got the hang of being a kid much faster than I’ve gotten used to being a Dad. She seems to have taken to it quite naturally, while I sometimes feel clumsy in my new role. But I have learned many great things already.
The first thing I’ve learned is that sleep is a precious luxury. I used to think it was necessary. I never slept much compared to most people, but now I understand down to the cellular level just what it means to be sleep deprived. And the word that comes first to mind is torture. My angelic daughter seems to have a sixth sense about this, and in her world, it’s time to wake up crying five minutes after I have finally dozed off. I shake my head trying to claw my way from the fog I’m in, and I look at her and marvel. How can she do this? What piece of her DNA makes this happen? Lol. It is a remarkable thing, and my mother and in-laws just smile almost vengefully each time I tell them about it.
“Dwight, what goes around comes around,” my mother says.
“Mom, I know I was no bargain as a youngster,” I answer. “I sure hope this only comes part way around.”
Another thing I’ve learned is that infants are more resilient than we uninitiated parents think. Brailey wakes up crying, and my immediate impulse is to charge off to the emergency room. “What’s wrong?” I think, and then I restrain this impulse to charge off to the hospital and investigate in my own awkward way.
Diaper change? Hunger? Upset stomach?
I investigate, diagnose, and fix whatever I find as best I can. And as I do this, I realize that Brailey is learning things that will last her a life time. She’s learning that when she’s uncomfortable or unhappy, one or two giant forms in her life will emerge, me or Tamika, to comfort her. She’s learning that she’s not alone, she belongs to something. She’s learning our touch, our motions, our voices, which probably sounds like a deep rumble to her ears. But mostly she’s learning how loved she is. And I’m learning a few important things myself.
I’m learning how to love in a way I’ve never loved before. I’m learning that sleep isn’t that important after all. I’m learning to look at the world again through the eyes of a precious new person in my life. I’m learning to communicate with a seven-week old. And I’m learning that this is the best thing I’ve ever done. My daughter has taught me a lot in seven short weeks. Above all, she’s teaching me how to be a Dad.
I love you Brailey Samara Owens.
To learn more about my story or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit my original website at www.StillStandingWithDwight.com .
To learn more about my story or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit my original website at www.StillStandingWithDwight.com .
Saturday, January 26, 2013
The first time I was asked about famous people in a wheelchair, I was hard pressed to come up with any names. That failure was mine, however, because some of the greatest dignitaries on the world stage live their lives in a wheelchair. I had simply never thought about it. I thought it might be fun to run through a partial list.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: FDR was the 32nd President of the United States and arguably the most important President of the twentieth century. He certainly was in office longer than any other in our history. He was first elected in 1932 shortly after the Great Depression, and was then reelected three more times. He guided us through the greatest depression of our history, was one of the three most prominent leaders of WWII on the winning side along with Churchill and Stalin, and is responsible for the implementation of Social Security. He contracted polio in 1921 and was paralyzed from the waist down as a result. This, of course, didn’t stop him, and he became one of the most prominent figures of the century.
Stephen Hawking: Hawking is one of the most famous and revered physicists and mathematicians or our age, and he has been in a wheelchair for the past forty years. He has defied numbers because he was told he would not live to see his 23rd birthday. Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is a motor neuron disease that results in the gradual and complete deteriorate of his muscle. He can no longer sit up, hold his head up, or move his hands,, but he sure can think. He wrote a best seller called “A Brief History of Time,” which tried to explain his theories of time and physics without using math.
Teddy Pendergrass, Sr.: Teddy was a drummer for the Cadillacs, which later merged with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. He later became the lead singer for the group jumping from the rear of the stage to become its foremost figure. In 1982, Pendergrass severed his spine in an auto accident and was paralyzed from the waist down. After numerous surgeries and a lengthy rehab, he got back to the studio and recorded the album “Love Language,” which included a duet with the then unknown Whitney Houston.
Christopher Reeves: Perhaps best known for his role as Superman in four films, Reeves was an actor, producer, and director. Reeves was paralyzed in 1995 after being thrown from a horse in an equestrian event. He went on to lobby and raise funds for spinal cord research and became Chairman of the American Paralysis Association and Vice Chairman on the National Organization on Disability. He also continued his career primarily as a director at the same time. He died at 52 from cardiac arrest leaving behind the legacy of doing more than any other person to raise awareness about persons with disabilities.
Itzhak Perlman: An Israeli-American, Perlman was one of the most distinguished violinists and conductors of the twentieth century. He contracted polio as a youngster but was able to walk for a long time using crutches. He became wheelchair bound later in life but continued his remarkable performances in the largest performing halls in the world. Critics often say his remarkable skills were matched by the joy he expressed in playing the violin.
Dwight Owens: Okay, so this one’s not so famous. But like these giants before me, I am doing the best I can to make my life count. I and hundreds of thousands like me live our lives as fully as possible and embrace each day as a gift. And I don’t feel the least bit disabled. I just do things a little more slowly than most people. I think there are many more adventures for me in the future, and I look forward to each of them.