I don’t know who gets more out of my visits to the Kennedy Heights Montessori Center, me or the kids. Usually I read to the 3 to 6 year olds, but last week we did something different. They each made a personal, hand made Valentine’s Day car that I brought to residents of a local nursing home. The children had so much fun making their gifts and how special those gifts were to the older adults who received them.
I have gotten to know Melissa these past few months through my work with the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival. She is a volunteer whose leadership and passion is greatly furthering the cause of our Festival whose goals are for people to change the way they perceive difference, to break down communication barriers, and to build a more welcoming, inclusive community.
I wanted to introduce Melissa to you and share some of her story.
Melissa graduated with honors from Wright State University with a Bachelor of Science in Business in 2000 and graduated in 2016 from the University of Phoenix with a Master of Information Systems. From being a career woman with Hewlett Packard Enterprises as an asset manager in the USPS Division to a single mother of her daughter, Claudia, she strives to reach the high goals she has set for herself. She never allows anyone to tell her she “can’t” do something; she figures out how to achieve it.
Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which has caused her to use a wheelchair for mobility, has also been a driving force for much of her volunteer work. In her free time, Melissa serves on the National Board of Directors for Cure SMA, assists her daughter’s school with administrative and fundraising tasks, assists her MDA office with Summer Camp, speaks at many events to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. She is also the chair of the Accommodations Committee for the 2017 Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival as well as a Film Reviewer.
Lisa: You are Ms. Wheelchair Ohio 2005 (MWO) and 3rd Runner Up Ms. Wheelchair America 2006. What has that experience meant to you and why is that Pageant important?
Melissa: Although I am no longer involved with the Ms. Wheelchair Ohio/America program, my time in the program was spent focused on helping other young girls and women with disabilities realize whatever dreams they have are in reach. I am a firm believer that the only limitations in life are the ones you place upon yourself. When I was MWO 2005 and ran the MWO program, I was an advocate of promoting the idea that these women were successfully living lives despite the need for a wheelchair for their day to day mobility. Society has a habit of seeing a person in a wheelchair as someone who cannot possibly be living a ‘normal’ life and that is something I wanted to change, even if just on a minor change, with the MWO program.
Lisa: You are so passionate about being involved with Cincinnati ReelAbilities. Why is the Festival important to you and why is it important that the community participate in and support it?
Melissa: When Susan Brownknight (executive director of LADD, Inc.) and Molly Lyons (LADD, Inc. director of development and external relations) first approached me about becoming involved in the ReelAbilities Festival, I was skeptical about becoming involved at first. Because I was so used to programs that were ‘feel good’ programs, I did not want to support another program that promoted the idea of able-bodied people doing ‘good’ for the disabled community and getting a pat on the back. To my surprise, they explained that ReelAbilities was actually the opposite of that so I was onboard.
The Festival itself and the message it promotes is important to me because mainstream media tends to promote the idea that people with disabilities need pity, are living lives not worth living, or are a drain on their families. For example, in the film/book ‘You Before Me’, the message was spread that death is better than living with a disability. The Cincinnati ReelAbilities Festival has films from all spectrums of disabilities and promotes people living their lives doing very ‘normal’ things despite having a disability. Now, don’t get me wrong, having a disability is challenging and even frustrating at times; however, I believe I can do anything I want to do, I just may need to do it differently.
Lisa: What is one of your greatest satisfactions of being a mother?
Melissa: My daughter is the sunshine of my life and I am thankful for her every day. Although I was unsure how a pregnancy would turn out, I knew I wanted to be a mother so I did everything possible to bring her into the world as healthy as possible. She ended up coming into the world 9 weeks early but you certainly couldn’t tell it today. She’s a happy, healthy, smart, sassy almost 10 year old and one of my greatest satisfactions is being able to watch her grow into a young lady while trying to teach her what she needs to know along the way. I love my career but my true, most rewarding job is raising my daughter and having her is the best decision I ever made.
Lisa: Who is someone who has great impacted your life and how?
Melissa: Being Catholic, my faith is extremely important to me and that faith was something instilled in me as a child from my Mother. She always taught me to have faith that God would see us through whatever challenge we were facing and, as an adult, I am very thankful to her for this. In fact, I am following her lead and raising my daughter with that same faith in God.
Lisa: What is an obstacle that you have overcome and how has that strengthened you?
Melissa: It is hard to choose one obstacle in my life that I have had to overcome because my whole life has been full of them. From teachers in school thinking that my mind didn’t work because my legs didn’t work to co-workers thinking I was given my job to fulfill a percentage of hiring obligation, my life has been a constant circle of proving myself to others. Although it can be exhausting at times, it has also taught me to just be who I am and do what I need to do regardless of what others may think of me. It has also given me patience to raise a very spirited, wonderful child.
To organize a MEGA animal adoption event that finds homes for some 800+ animals, it takes a MEGA crew of hard working volunteers to make it happen. That event is the My Furry Valentine, our region’s largest adoption event that finds homes for pets from about 35 different rescue groups. And two names I want to recognize with that event are Carolyn Evans of PhoDOGrapher and Jennifer Grimmett.
Carolyn, and her pet photography business, is host and founder of My Furry Valentine. She is also someone with a HUGE heart for animals…and people. She has captured the spirits of furry friends for more than a decade; and her photographs have helped many animals find forever homes. Caroline is an ardent supporter of the No-Kill movement, the Board Secretary of HeARTs Speak, a united group of artists united to break down the myth that animals from rescues and shelters are inferior, and the Board President of My Furry Valentine.
Jennifer Grimmett is an assistant principal for an online high school; and serves as My Furry Valentine’s volunteer coordinator. It is Jennifer’s role to recruit, coordinate and manage about 265 volunteers for the two day event. It is a non-paid position that has required dozens of hours, and has even gotten her family including her children involved.
Spending that kind of time on anything generally takes someone driven by passion…something both Caroline and Jennifer have. You can read more about Carolyn in my past interview here.
Jennifer told me she has always loved animals. It is something shared by her entire family including her husband, Mike, and two daughters, Michael and Audrey. All three of their cats and their Pug, Finn, are all rescues. Finn came into their lives via a Columbus prison rehabilitation program for dogs, and is every bit a ‘mama’s dog,’ going most places Jennifer goes.
While she has spent so many hours communicating with people online or over the telephone, Thursday will be a big night as all volunteers will congregate for a big orientation meeting prior to the event. “I really can’t wait until our big volunteer meeting this Thursday before the event. It will be my first time meeting everyone in person. It will be the only time when everyone is in one room together. I think it will be amazing to share that positive energy with everyone,” Jennifer told me.
This year’s Main Event will again be held at the Sharonville Convention Center (11355 Chester Road; 45246) and will feature hundreds of adoptable pets (dogs, cats, puppies, kittens and other small critters) from dozens of different rescue and shelter groups from around the Greater Cincinnati area. Every pet adopted from our Main Event will go home with swag and adopters can enter to win one an adopter raffle basket.
As a courtesy to the adoptable animals already on site as well as for the safety and well-being of guests, owned pets are not allowed at the event. If you’d like to schedule a meet-and-greet between your current pet and a potential adoptee, My Furry Valentine suggests you contact that rescue or shelter directly.
If you are unable to attend the MFV Main Event, be sure to check out the many participating locations throughout the city. Satellite events are hosted throughout Greater Cincinnati by My Furry Valentine participating rescues and shelters. You can find a list on the My Furry Valentine website.
Early Bird Entry, Saturday: 10am – 12pm
Saturday, February 11th, 12pm – 6pm
Sunday, February 12th, 10am – 5pm
General Admission: $5 per person, ages 5 and up
Early Bird Admission: $25 for 1, $40 for a pair, children 17 and under free when accompanying an adult.
In my So Much PETential pet behavior blog, I wrote about some considerations to keep in mind BEFORE you go. Please click here to read them.
Through my work promoting the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival, I have gotten to know some pretty amazing people who have impacted me in very meaningful ways. Actor John Lawson is among them. I met and got to know John when I was promoting the 2015 Festival. He was a volunteer and a spokesperson with whom I spent a lot of time. Now living in the Los Angeles area for his acting, John is coming back to Cincinnati to join us next month as one of our 2017 Festival VIPs.
What I remember so much about my time with him two years ago was how John could make me laugh, but also, John is an incredible listener, an encourager and a leader. He went out of his way to let me know my work and contributions were valued, and he did that with everyone I saw him come in contact with. At our Film Festival, he spoke with eloquence and humor in spreading our message. He included people. He inspired not because he is someone who has a disability but because of who he is as a human being.
Below are two different posts John had written on his Facebook page awhile back (I am reprinting with his permission) about his story. Since they had some duplication, I cut out part of the second post. I hope that you will take a few minutes to read his words. They just may change the way you see and think about difference.
John Lawson’s Story (in his own words)
Feb 4, 2015
Wow, 28 years ago today February 4, 1987 is the day that I truly will never forget. I guess the cynical smart-ass side of me wants to write that I’ll never be able to forget for there is always someone coming up wanting to know how I lost my arms or who are very quick to remind me how “lucky” I am to be alive. I don’t know that I agree with their assessment of a measure of luck apportioned to me. I started playing the piano at age three, then began lessons at age four and studied classical piano for 17 straight years. At age 30, I had spent over half my life learning to play piano and now would spend the rest of my life without hands. That doesn’t sound very lucky.
I have been lucky to raise three wonderful, smart and somewhat “well adjusted” kids (hey I was their Dad) and had the very lucky chance to marry the love-of-my-life. Unluckily, the cancer won and I lost her too.
I spent five months of my life at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill North Carolina. My left hand and most of my arm below my elbow was amputated that day. My right hand was amputated above the wrist approximately one month later. As the burned skin debridement surgeries stopped and drugs wore off, I assumed a new role I never wanted to audition for as an upper extremity double amputee; a man with no hands left only to watch others play music.
While at the Burn Center, I received the best-specialized medical burn care from some of the world’s leading doctors and nurses. It was there that I decided to do my best to recover all aspects of my life. It was explained that losing limbs is similar to losing a loved one and you should experience the same emotions. While at the hospital, I never felt that I went through all the steps normally associated with a life changing experience such as my accident. If I did, I did them in my sleep, because from early on I realized I had to unconditionally accept my new role. I did find out, that since I never displayed the emotions expected, the psychiatrists that visited my room over the months noted in my chart that I was a “classic case of denial, and would suffer a catastrophic mental breakdown with in five years.”
Again, wow; twenty-eight years gone by and I’m still waiting for that mental breakdown. I think I would enjoy the time off.
Probably the most helpful wisdom I received after my amputations was by an unknown author, but passed on by my mother, “No one ever finds life worth living—you have to make it worth living.”
I am not special in the things I have done, with the conditions I have to deal with to do them. I could not control the circumstances that burned my body and resulted in the amputation of both my hands, but I can control what happens after the flesh has healed. I can control my attitude.
Early in my acting career, someone gave me a coffee mug with a saying printed on the outside, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.”
Those six words carry a powerful meaning. We only get to do this once and no matter what or where our stage, this is our one and only performance. I do not know what roles in life I will have to play in the years ahead, but I do know I will always chug along with the same attitude as the little blue engine pulling the long heavy train in the book read by my mother to me so many times as a child, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”
Jan 10, 2017
I need to say I am not here to inspire you. I have lost count of strangers that approach me in public while grocery shopping or pumping gas to tell me that I am an inspiration. I guess they mean well, but to me they are just congratulating me for remembering to put on my pants before I left the house. There is nothing inspirational about pumping gas or grabbing a can of green beans off the shelf. You have been lied to about life with a disability.
Most people believe that because you have a disability that your life is worse; that being a person with a disability is a bad thing and that if you live with the disability, it makes you exceptional. Living with a disability is not a bad thing and it certainly doesn’t make you exceptional or inspirational.
Life as a person with disabilities can be difficult and we do have to overcome some things. But it’s not the things that you may think. It’s not the things to do with our bodies that we have to overcome. I believe that disability is caused by the way society is structured, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. If society looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for people with disabilities, then disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives. Of course I’m in a profession where the industry creates barriers that 95% of the work for characters with a disability are given to an able body actor. It’s these societal barriers of the industry that restrict the choices and control of my career.
So February 4, 2017 I will start using prosthetics for longer than I had my hands. Half of my life wearing hooks. Do they replace my hands? No, but they are a tool I’m forced to use for maintaining my independence in a society designed for able body people; a tool for me to pump gas or load my grocery cart. I’ve learned to use my prosthetics to best of my ability, so I know when people tell me “I’m an inspiration,” that they mean it as a compliment. I do understand that, but the reason it happens is because of this lie that’s been sold to the public that disability makes you exceptional and makes you inspirational. I’m sorry; but honestly, it doesn’t. I really believe that this propaganda that we’ve been sold is the greatest injustice and makes life hard for us.
Oh, and that quote about “the only disability in life is a bad attitude,” is total bullshit. It’s just not true. No amount of me smiling at a piano keyboard with a positive attitude will allow me to play as I used to touch the ivories with ten fingers.
I hope in my lifetime to live in a society where someone with a disability is not the exception, but just accepted as a norm. I hope to live in a society where a man stuffing a grocery cart is not an inspiration just because he is using prosthetics. I want to live in a society where we don’t have such low expectations of people with disabilities that we hire able body people to do jobs they are capable of performing. I hope in my lifetime to live in a society where we place value on genuine achievement by people with disabilities.