This archived article was written by: Nathan Manley
In a consumer world of bigger, better, faster and more, the moments that inspire us to stop and contemplate our lives are rare. USU students will never forget the motivating and moving message of finding real happiness through adversity and success as a double amputee. Spencer West spoke during the first Common Hour Lecture, Sept. 12, 2012, at the Logan campus and all extension campuses via satellite.
West was born with a genetic disorder and at age 5, his legs were amputated above the knee, and eventually, after multiple surgeries, just below his pelvis. At this point, the doctors told his parents their 5-year-old son would never sit up or walk by himself, and wouldn’t be a functioning member of society. This brings on a whole new level of hopelessness, and a whole new meaning to the phrase, it’s what’s on the inside that truly counts.
Being a double amputee, he’s had to deal with a certain level of intolerance and bullying throughout his life, and is still singled out with questions like: where are your legs? How do you use the restroom? How do you drive a car? But West has a snappy wit, coming back with answers about how he lost his legs by volunteering at a magic show and getting sawed in half.
As a child he didn’t always react with a sense of humor, especially in gym class. Can you imagine getting picked last every time because you don’t have legs? Or because you don’t play sports and you hangout with all the girls you are associated with homosexuals when you have a heterosexual orientation? He refers often to Dan Wilkins quoting him, “A community that bullies just one of its members is no community at all.” West’s message is clear, bullying is simply unacceptable.
After surviving high school and overcoming an identity crisis during college, he eventually graduated from both and landed a sweet job as operations manager of a famous salon in Arizona. Even though he had everything society told him he needed to be happy like a nice car, a nice house with a swimming pool, money, clothes and even a big television and a brand new Wii, he wasn’t. He had reached a certain status and there was nothing left to buy, watch or do. His fleeting happiness gave him a yearning for something more.
Call it fate or something else, around the time that West came to the realization that he was leading a shallow life, a college mentor called and invited him on a humanitarian trip to Kenya. At first West admitted to thinking shallow and selfish thoughts such as, “why would I do that when I have such a good job?” But he soon changed his mind after researching Me to We, the organization responsible for sponsoring these trips, and being inspired by the story of Craig Kilberger, the boy who founded it.
At 12, Kilberger read a news article about another 12 year old in Turkey, who was a slave as a carpet weaver who escaped and started speaking out against child labor laws in his native country. Tragically, this Turkish boy was gunned down by carpet makers due to a decrease in sales after every speech he gave. Kilberger was horrified and humbled by this article, on how blessed he was just to go to school every day. He resolved to change the child labor laws, remove children from global industries and put them back into the classroom.
Thousands of supporters and volunteers across the nation joined the Free the Children movement, backing Kilberger as he voiced his concerns to Congress, Hillary Clinton and during an appearance on Oprah. Free the Children grew into a worldwide social enterprise and was renamed Me to We, which now organizes trips to poverty-stricken countries to build anything from new schools to water wells and purification systems which eliminate contaminated water supplies.
West saw firsthand the hope that these volunteers bring and how devastated some of these areas can be. He was humbled by the living conditions during that first trip to Kenya. Watching them walk for three hours to fill a three-gallon jug with dirty water every morning; seeing families fit 10-11 members inside a one-room shack. Witnessing the schools that have no walls or windows, no chalkboard and no desks or paper. He was astonished to see them write in the dirt and when it rained, they would write in the mud. He noticed that only the males are educated in Kenya. But, more remarkably, he noticed how happy they were.
West hadn’t realized his privileged life. Even as someone with no legs, he hadn’t recognized how blessed he was, until a little Kenyan girl approached him. This little girl told him that she didn’t know white people could lose their legs too. That simple statement had a profound effect on West and changed the course of his life. He has since moved from Arizona to Toronto to work at the headquarters of Me to We, accompanied by dozens of humanitarian trips and speaking engagements all over the world promoting his story and involvement with Me to We.
What can we learn from Spencer West and Craig Kilberger? If a 12-year-old boy and a man with no legs can make such an impact, why can’t I? I don’t have to go Kenya to make a difference, I can be an everyday hero. There are three ways that West says we can accomplish this. One is to be happy and thankful each and everyday. Two is to take a risk and do something, that’s the purpose of college. Three is to stand up and help those around you, regardless of them being less fortunate or you being less fortunate.