Finding inspiration and encouraging others despite huge disability
Despite not having legs, Spencer West climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for charity.
Published Friday, December 7, 2012 7:58PM EST
A weekday morning assembly at Eastern Collegiate High School in Kitchener, Ontario, and in a room adjacent to the large gymnasium, 31-year-old Spencer West is preparing to go on stage.
He is a motivational speaker, an author, fundraiser and a man with a remarkable personal and medical story: a double amputee who has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on his hands.
“Oh my God I love you,” says Grade 9 student Angel, crying, as she gives him a hug. “Everything he’s gone through. He never gave up.”
It’s clear Spencer, who is travelling across North America to speak to students, to corporations, to stadiums, is becoming an idol of sorts.
“Sometimes I get a bit embarrassed because I don't think I am doing anything different. But it's those kinds of things tell me I am doing my job,” he said.
He is quickly becoming a symbol, across Canada and the U.S., where he travels on speaking engagements -- a symbol for never giving up, despite adversity.
He soon has the gymnasium full of usually bored, gum-chewing, texting teenagers -- in rapt attention -- drawing them into his story.
Growing up different
Spencer West was born in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1981 -- with a condition called sacral ageneisis.
“The doctor who brought him into the world, brought him out to me and said here's your son and I was happy and he said, well we got some problems,” recalled Ken West, Spencer’s father.
Spencer’s spine hadn’t formed properly. His legs were so malformed doctors said they would never work. At age three he had surgery to remove both legs at the knee. Spencer didn’t much like the prosthetics. So, at age five, doctors removed his legs all the way to his hips.
"We actually have that in writing by a doctor that said Spencer will need to lead a sedentary life and so we're trying to steer his parents towards reading and writing for him. They figured that’s all he would do -- would be to sit inside and read books,” said his mother, Tonnette
There is a photograph of Spencer at age five in a wheelchair -- his legs are gone. Yet he has a bright shiny smile on his face. A photo that might inspire pity in some is actually a bright memory for him.
“For me, my legs never worked and they were in the way. So, going to the doctor and having them removed so I could get around easier was the best. I never saw it as that I lost something because I didn't have it to begin with. It made me independent. It wasn't terrible; it was a gift,” said Spencer.
He learned he could get around easier and faster on his hands.
“He was a maniac on his hands. He was strong. He'd go crazy around the house, up and down the stairs, everything a normal kid would do, except on his hands,” Ken West said.
These words from his mother would frame Spencer’s thinking: “You have one life and you have to make the best of it. You have to overcome your obstacles and you have to live the best life you can with what you were given."
Spencer learned to swim, to run on his arms, even skateboard. Even as an adult, he can navigate his apartment with ease, climbing onto stools or chairs using his hands. It looks like he is sitting on his ribs.
“My pelvis, the way I understand it, is not connected to my spine. So, it scoops forward a little bit. So I know it's confusing when I sit it looks like I am sitting on my ribs. But if i were to stand up you would see I have a waist," said Spencer.
Some are too curious about the extent of his amputations.
“Let me make it clear. I am only missing my legs. It is the only thing that I am missing. Everything else is still there. They removed just below my hips. In fact, a friend keeps joking that in my book I should include a nude photo to get it out of the way,” Spencer said with a laugh.
When he was growing up his physical condition made Spencer a target of bullies who would call him names. One attack by an especially malicious bully still haunts him.
“He thought it would be funny to grab the back of my wheelchair going down the hall, so I stopped abruptly. My books fell on the floor. I ultimately tumbled out after them. Horrible. It was horrible. And I was telling myself, ‘You're not going to cry,’ and picking up my books and climbing back in my chair and saying, ‘It's OK. It didn't happen.’”
Spencer now uses that painful experience in his message to students.
“Bullying continues to happen in schools across North America and the rest of the world. And people are singled out for looking different, for not having the coolest clothes, the latest gadgets. I personally believe bullying perpetuates hate. Instead of singling out each other for our differences, why don’t we celebrate our differences?"
Spencer’s differences were nowhere more celebrated than when he became a high school cheerleader. A grainy videos from 1999 shows his team jumping into formation and Spencer doing hand flips, and landing on his chest.
He graduated from high school, got a university degree in computer science and found work in clothing stores, as a receptionist, even volunteering at a TV newsroom.
Finding his mission
But Spencer’s life changed in 2002. That’s when he joined a friend on a trip to Kenya, to build a school for the Canadian agency called Free The Children.
As he travelled the villages Spencer said he realized he wanted to help these impoverished communities. He also realized his story of how he lost his legs was a powerful tool to connect him with people.
“A young girl said, ‘I didn't know white people could lose their legs.’ And it was the first time in my entire life where I recognized that, oh, maybe there's value to this. I could share my story.”
As fate would have it, the Canadian agency that helped fund the project he was visiting was looking for someone inspirational to speak at public events. Spencer had found his calling, joining Me To We as one of its ambassadors.
Spencer now lives in Toronto, and after four years of living in the Great White North, has applied for Canadian citizenship. The boy who doctors said would lead a "sedentary life" is on the road 42-weeks of the year, flying or driving himself to events. His Honda CR-V is adapted to allow him to accelerate and brake using hand controls.
His goal is to raise money for Free the Children and to inspire young minds to surmount their own obstacles, to find causes to support, ways to help the world.
Spencer is not about words. He’s about actions.
To the top of Africa
He returned to Africa this past June, to do something no one has done before -- climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the continent’s highest peak, on his hands.
The climb, which began June 13, 2012, took seven days and was nearly 6,000 metres upward. The initial plan was for Spencer to do half the climb in his wheelchair, the other half on his hands. Instead the terrain proved so rocky and steep, he walked 80 per cent of it.
At times he had to be carried by his friends, Alex Meers and David Johnson, who accompanied him on the trek. But towards the end of the journey, the two suffered horribly from altitude sickness, caused by the low levels of oxygen at the higher altitudes. It triggers bouts of nausea and fatigue. Spencer, oddly, was unaffected.
“People ask me, ‘Did you ever wish you had legs?’ The answer is no. But this was the first time I wish I did,” said Spencer.
Spencer ended up carrying his friends, emotionally at least, to the summit, walking between them and urging them on.
He raised over $500,000 in pledges for Free the Children, securing clean water for some 100,000 people in East Africa.
“I didn't want this to be about me. We wanted this to be a symbol,” he told the students in Kitchener. “That if I, Spencer West, without legs, (who was) told I would never be a functioning member of society, can walk up the highest mountain in Africa, what more can everybody do?”