Friday, June 7, 2013

“My Wheelchair, My Friend” (Part II)

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.


Dwight Owens

For more information on my missions or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com 

Friday, May 24, 2013

“My Wheelchair, My Friend” (Part I)


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.


Dwight Owens


For More information on my missions or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com .


Friday, May 17, 2013

“Prom Night”


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.


Dwight Owens





To for more information on my missions or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing," visit www. StillStandingWithDwight.com 







Friday, May 10, 2013

“Forgiveness – The Best Medicine”


“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.


Dwight Owens

Visit www.StillStandingWithDwight.com for more information on my story or to purchase a copy of "Still Standing."


Friday, May 3, 2013

“Stars and Champs”


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 Ulmer

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.




Dwight Owens



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

Spain Park High School


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

“The Joy of Driving”


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.


Dwight Owens

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