Steve and Elizabeth Wampler believe in living life to its fullest, in pursuing goals and dreams with all they have, and in encouraging others – especially children – to do the same. They want their legacy to be a movement, a world where everyone, no matter their differences, are included, welcomed, and strengthened by each other’s company.
I have written about the Wamplers before because they so touched me when I met them during my work with the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival. Who they are and what they stand for is to me, what every day heroes are all about. They bring out the best in everyone fortunate enough to come in their path, empowering people and moving them to action.
If you are unfamiliar with their story, please read further to learn, be inspired…and join me in being part of their new initiative the #2Together Project.
Six Days of Absolute, Awe Inspiring Torture
Those were the words Steve used to describe his journey, one pull at a time – 20,000 pulls in all – as he inched his way to the top of the world’s highest rock, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. With two experienced climbing friends at his side, news of Steve’s climb traveled the globe. He was interviewed in much of the major media. Until that moment when Team Wampler reached the pinnacle, no other person with a disability had ever achieved such a goal. Steve did it with full use of only one hand and sheer determination (and a year of training).
The six days that Steve fought against exhaustion, life threatening danger, and a fear of heights also represented the greatest length of time he had ever spent outside a wheelchair.
Born with a severe form of cerebral palsy, this man who held the world breathless as he did what few others would ever dare to do, was never defined by what he could not do or what he did differently.
What I remember most about Steve (and Elizabeth) was how, when Steve laughed, it ignited the whole room. Elizabeth would be quickly infected and not long after, we were all smiling and laughing with them. I remember how, even though we had just met moments earlier, they had this magical way of making me feel like I had known and been their friends my whole life.
I remember at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Steve giving advice to children battling life threatening or temporary medical conditions to never give up. And Elizabeth, through another microphone at the Ryan Seacrest Studio, saying, “Just find out what you can do physically and go do it. Go play.”
Wow, think about the power in that advice. Think about how through play, comes opportunities for joy and creation; for building friendships and values; for strengthening motor and cognitive skills; for belonging.
It was in a wilderness camp in California where a young child named Steve learned he can do anything.
His drive to give other children that same wisdom was his ultimate mission when he set out to conquer a feat never been done before. His El Capitan climb was to raise money for the Stephen J. Wampler Foundation (also known as Camp Wamp), an adventure program accessible to all children no matter their background or ability.
It doesn’t matter how a child looks or moves or learns or experiences his/her world. For two weeks, they camp under the stars, fish, canoe, sing around the camp fire, hike, dance, tell stories, meet new friends, and grow. They learn just as Camp Wamp’s founder did, that they can do anything.
And all of this happens without any financial obligation to the child’s parents or guardians. It is an incredible gift.
The #2Gether Project
Please join me, and others around the world in supporting the Wampler’s mission.
Through the #2getherproject, please:
Story written by GTGA Intern Katie Reinstatler.
“I wanted to create a film for more than just my own kid. I wanted to find a way to do it on a larger scale, to utilize storytelling so more people would connect with him, identify with him and root for him.”
This is the purpose and the passion behind Ethan the Brave, a short educational film on developmental disability driven by Sara Bitter, mother, and community educator on developmental disability, and created with the help of many, whose names will be mentioned later in this article. She has spent the start of every school year for the last several years teaching teachers, students, and fellow parents about Fragile X Syndrome, the syndrome with which her son lives. Fragile X Syndrome is a genetic condition that causes a variety of developmental problems, including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment. Males are more likely to be affected by this syndrome than females.
As the mother of a son living with developmental disability, her passion and drive in educating her community and the overall public about the ways that these disabilities affect those living with them, is evident. It is in the way she speaks about the work she does, how her movement suddenly becomes animated, and in the careful attention she pays to every detail. Sara is not only passionate about this work, and the film she has created, but she is absolutely committed to her work not only as the mother of a child living with developmental disability, but with the opportunities she has been afforded to be an educator to her community, to teachers, fellow parents, and students, who may not otherwise have access to such educational resources, if it weren’t for the film which Sara set out to create.
In speaking with her on why she wanted to do this, she told me, “I tried to focus on developmental disability because I feel like there’s not a lot of focus on it. I wanted to help students that aren’t getting a fair shake. That was my motivation in all of this, was the kids. So I really wanted Ethan to be a composite character of all these different people, to represent a wide variety of disabilities.”
Ethan the Brave came to Sara one afternoon. She sat at her kitchen table and spent an hour working on the story. Immediately, she knew she had to make it something bigger, that this was something that could be a real tool in spreading awareness about disability in schools, and more specifically, developmental disability. In her quest to make this a reality, she partnered with Reelabilities, a local film festival that focuses on disability, and created both an education committee dedicated to educating the Cincinnati public, and the film. With their collaboration, Sara was able to partner with Thunder-Sky, an art studio in Cincinnati for unconventional artists, many of whom are disabled themselves, to create the film, which features stop motion painting, drawing etc. of Ethan’s life, while a young boy narrates his story.
This is Ethan the Brave, a short 10 minute video that lets the audience know kids with disabilities are really not that much different from kids who don’t have disabilities. Ethan can run, and swim, and feel all the same emotions as the other kids. When Sara described the way she framed the story, she mentioned how “I wanted it to be fun, positive, and uplifting. I didn’t want it to be negative at all.” Too often, it seems, people focus on what those with disabilities can’t do, not what they can. Ethan at one point even says, “I don’t want people to be afraid of me.” He is just like everyone else, and this is how he wants to be treated.
Ultimately, that is the goal of Ethan the Brave, and it accomplishes that goal. Sara’s tenacity, dedication, pride, and absolute passion and compassion in her work and what she has accomplished with this radiates outward to everyone around her. For her, the most rewarding thing is knowing or at least hoping that there is a kid in the classes that watch this that will benefit from this film and the support they receive as a result of it.
Side Note: Ethan the Brave was recently also published as a book. You can purchase it on Amazon.com.
A conversation I had last week with friends inspired me to write this life lesson. It is an important one for us to remember and teach to others, including children, every day. Today, my challenge to you is this…reach out and learn something new about someone today – could be someone you know or someone you meet.
One of our most basic of human needs
is having that sense of belonging.
All of us want to be
included, loved and respected.
We all want to have friends.
And we all want to feel
like our contributions are important.
And we all have within us
the power to do our part
in fulfilling that need
in those around us.
When make the effort to learn
about others’ points of view,
to include and welcome others
who are different from ourselves,
we all are better for it.
– Lisa Desatnik
When I was hired by the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival (organized by Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled and presented by Macy’s) late summer of 2014, much of Greater Cincinnati had never heard of it; and few people who I reached out to had any idea of the scope of the event or its value to our community – including me, admittedly. Even those who worked for the nonprofit host agencies did not realize the magnitude of what was to unfold.
People experiencing a disability or cognitive, genetic, physical and behavioral difference are often misunderstood. They are portrayed in photos and sometimes news stories as ‘less than’ normal or super human just by virtue of their own being. They are often not included, or at least not to the extent that they are people first with interests, hopes, dreams, talents, and even bad days, just like everybody else. Yet ‘they’ are about 20% of our population. And ‘they’ are the only minority population in which all people will be counted among them at some point in their lives.
The overarching goal of LADD and ReelAbilities in hiring me to serve as the director of public relations and communications was for me to support the unrelenting drive of determined volunteers and staff organizing the events by being a catalyst for change – to bring the community together in support of not only an event but a cause so powerful as to have impact on each and every one of us in a direct or indirect way. I wanted to get people in this region talking to each other and realizing that inclusion and togetherness is not about ‘other people’, it is about themselves and each other. I wanted to get people excited about ReelAbilities as a world class film festival, and come out to support and learn from it. The challenge was to do all of this with a very limited budget including for my own time, but I was up for the challenge as the cause is something very important to me.
For eight days beginning February 27, Greater Cincinnati was transformed into a film screening mecca with out-of-town celebrities helping Cincinnati explore our differences, and our shared humanity. Internationally acclaimed photographer Rick Guidotti; Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein; Project Runway fan favorite Justin LeBlanc; Cincinnati icons Ted Kremer, Drew Lachey, Nick and Nina Clooney, Dave Parker and Ken Anderson; former snowboarding champion Kevin Pearce; and actors Danny Woodburn, Kurt Yaeger, Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell, John Lawson, David DeSanctis (from Where Hope Grows), Jesus Sanchez-Velez (from Stand Clear of the Closing Doors); veterans SSG Travis Mills and Michael Schlitz; and Steve Wampler, who climbed El Capitan, where just some of the big name personalities who came to Cincinnati to be part of ReelAbilities. Academy Award Winning Actress Marlee Matlin was our keynote speaker for our Kick Off Celebration Luncheon that hosted hundreds.
The films of ReelAbilities were selected from some 500 plus submitted for jurying, many of them with wide international acclaim and awards to their name. Their common thread was that they celebrated the lives and stories of people experiencing disability. Many were shown with the film actors/subjects as special guests; and all screenings included a thought provoking discussion at the end.
I saw and still do see ReelAbilities as an opportunity to open dialogue and doors about topics that, for the most part, have been barricaded from our conversations – or at least in productive ways out of discomfort or lack of interest or personal connection.
There were so many strategies that I put into place (with help from wonderful volunteers and staff) to reach out to our community and pull people in through their personal stories and connections – their differences, and their shared humanity. And, in the end, it all came together to create a community that supported the film festival beyond our wildest dreams in classrooms, board rooms, businesses, entertainment venues, stores, nonprofits, and universities. Nearly 4500 people attended our events, with numerous film screenings having sold out.
The honest questions that were asked, the open answers that were shared, and the comments afterward from film goers told all of us that others grew from it too with expanded and even new perspectives.
There were so many people whose words and actions touched me in meaningful ways that it has been difficult to find the right words to capture its impact on me.
There was Kevin Pearce who took us into his life and shared his family tradition with all of us, ringing a Tibetan singing bowl to facilitate awareness of the moment – even at our formal Mingle with the Stars Gala. And, speaking of the Gala, anytime you have comedian actors in a room together and give them center stage to improvise, laughter is bound to follow. That was the genius idea (and somewhat brave too) of Festival Managing Director Susan Brownknight.
I remember the first time I met Richard Bernstein. He was so filled with genuine flattery of everyone he met. That, I came to learn quickly, is just his way. It is a gift and something I came to treasure about being around him.
We brought our VIPs to the Seacrest Studios at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center where kids could interact with them. It is there where I saw the infectious laughter of Danny Woodburn, Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell and John Lawson banter between each other; and again when Steve and Elizabeth Wampler sat side-by-side. Steve shared this message with hospital patients, “Don’t let anyone tell you, no, you can’t do that. Anything is possible.”
Justin LeBlanc promoted literacy by reading a book about inclusion to an entire gymnasium filled with school children; promoted creativity by helping students who are deaf to design and show fashions; and promoted abilities by speaking about his own personal story. Young students at Ohio Valley Voices also got to ask Justin lots of questions – like ‘When is your birthday?’, ‘What is your favorite color?’ and ‘Do you have a dog?’
While here, SSG Travis Mills , one of five surviving quadruple amputee veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, met for the very first time a critical care doctor who provided medical care after his 2012 injury during his air care transport from Kandahar to Bagram. Together we took them to tour UC Health’s Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness or C-STARS where Major Dr. Laurae Rettig was trained. I’ll always remember Travis’ wicked sense of humor…and his rotating hand that he can make go round and round and round.
I always welcome Rick Guidotti’s bear hug. The lens from which he sees the world has opened eye across the globe to see the gift of each individual and the beauty in difference.
I treasured all of the time I got to spend with my friends, Danny Woodburn, and his wife, Amy Buchwald. They are two incredible people who I look up to as examples of role models when it comes to integrity and perseverance. Equaled with their talent is their fearlessness when it comes to standing up for what they believe in.
ReelAbilities gave me the opportunity to get to know and admire John Lawson, an encourager and leader, with a gift for bringing out the best in others.
Then there is the Festival Chair Kathleen Cail, Co-Chairs Sara Bitter and Kara Ayers; Managing Director Susan Brownknight; staff team – Jesse, Hannah, Molly, and Jen; and all of the committee volunteers for whom I have so much respect. They are such an awesome group of passionate, hard working, and dedicated people without whom this would not have been possible.
The Festival was about people coming together, standing up for and embracing eachother. It was about opening eyes and minds to see beyond people’s differences to what we all share – our humanity. I celebrate LADD for having the vision, foresight, courage and strength to create and organize such a community changing event. I am especially in awe of Susan Brownknight as our leader.
In her luncheon speech, Marlee Matlin looked out into the audience and shared, “We need to keep opening doors when people want them shut. We need to shine the light on ignorance when people want to keep us in the dark. And we need to make noise when they want to keep us quiet. But most of all, we need to keep on being ourselves, follow your heart and in the end accommodation will happen. We are the ones who can make it happen.”
Yes, Marlee, you are right we are. Let’s make our voices be heard!
While walking in a toy store
the day before today,
I overheard a Crayon Box
with many things to say.
“We are a box of crayons
that really doesn’t get along,”
said Blue to all the others.
“Something here is wrong!
Well, i bought that box of crayons
and took it home with me
and laid out all the crayons
so the crayons could all see.
They watched me as I colored
with Red and Blue and Green
and Black and White and Orange
and every color in between.
They watched as Green became the grass
and Blue became the sky.
The Yellow sun was shining bright
on White clouds drifting by.
Colors changing as they touched,
becoming something new.
They watched me as I colored.
They watched till I was through.
And when I’d finally finished,
I began to walk away.
And as I did the Crayon box
had something more to say……..
“I do like Red!” said the Yellow.
And Green said, “So do I !”
And Blue you are terrific
so high up in the sky.”
“We are a Box of Crayons
each of us unique,
but when we get together
the picture is complete”
– Author unknown