MAMARONECK, N.Y. – Motivational speaker Spencer West lost his legs at age 5, a scary thought for children like Daurell Melendez, whose family attended his talk, "Overcoming Challenges in Life," at the Hommocks Middle School Tuesday night.
While Daurell thought West looked different and strange at the beginning of his presentation, he said the Toronto resident's light humor and moving story changed all of that.
"My son was a little afraid to see him, but having heard him speak, he thinks he was great," said Daurell's mother Aura Melendez of Mamaroneck.
The Mamaroneck School District, which collaborated with all of the district's PTAs in organizing the event, has been paying special attention to fostering inclusion and blurring the line between kids with disabilities and those without, said Anthony Minotti, assistant superintendent.
West, who was born with a genetic disorder called sacral agenesis, told the packed audience several times that, "At the end of the day, we're all just people." Although he has never had the use his legs, West doesn't let that define who he is. In fact, as a child, he decided he didn't like using prosthetics because, he said, it felt dishonest. He didn't have legs and he accepted that.
In high school, where he grew up in Wyoming, he acted in school plays, sang in the choir and was even a cheerleader.
"Spencer speaks a lot about social challenges that he has faced in his life, like bullying," said Patty Wolff, who helped establish a district-funded program called Building Bridges that introduces elementary students to different disabilities.
While overcoming the physical challenges was hard, West said being bullied because he was different may have been even harder. People, he said, always ask three questions before asking his name: “Where are your legs?” “How do you use the bathroom?” and “How do you drive a car?”
"People weren't seeing me as a person, they were seeing me as someone without legs," West told the audience of parents, students and faculty in the Hommocks Auditorium.
During college, and then as an operations director for a hair salon, West felt lost. That is, until he took a trip to East Africa to build schools with an organization called Me to We. Transformed by the experience, and eager to help more kids, West devoted his life to similar causes. On June 10, West and two of his friends will attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa.
"We're doing this, not only to redefine what's possible for me, but in doing this we're hoping to raise enough money to provide stable clean water to over 12,500 people in East Africa being faced by the drought," West said.
Wolff hopes that parents continue the conversation about inclusion and accepting differences with their children at home, or even the other way around.
"We're talking to the kids in school about some of these things, and this is a step for those kids to take that conversation home," Wolff said.
"It was so fantastic," said Charlize Hudson, a third-grader from Mt. Vernon. "It's amazing that he never gave up on anything."