Standing Tall: My Journey

Standing Tall: My Journey

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by Spencer West

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Spencer West is many things. Accomplished speaker. University graduate. Natural prankster. Former cheerleader. And a young man without legs—something that has never held him back. Spencer was born without the use of his legs. When he was five, doctors decided to amputate below his pelvis to better help him get around. It didn’t bother him; he was Superman…  See more details below


Spencer West is many things. Accomplished speaker. University graduate. Natural prankster. Former cheerleader. And a young man without legs—something that has never held him back. Spencer was born without the use of his legs. When he was five, doctors decided to amputate below his pelvis to better help him get around. It didn’t bother him; he was Superman and nothing would ever get in his way. Or so he thought. Navigating through life on his hands, Spencer has always lived with purpose. But he wanted more out of life than just a paycheque and material possessions. He wanted to make an impact but wasn’t always sure how. That was until he had the epiphany: He was different for a reason. Infused with humour and humility, Spencer has never lost the hope or courage he needed to tackle personal obstacles—bullying, isolation, failure, or pride. His secret? Always standing tall.

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As soon as I got off the plane, it hit me. The air. It smelled of roadside fires, diesel fuel and perspiration. The Kenyan sun was different than the one in Arizona, too. It was higher in the sky and beat down along with a humid wind that washed over me as I headed into the terminal. But once inside, I nearly choked on the lack of air. I breathed in and out deeply and looked around. Adults of all shapes and sizes were talking in languages I did not recognize. Children were running up and down the corridor, some playing tag, others kicking a soccer ball. All of them were laughing with great smiles spread across their faces. There were so many people, and making so much commotion, it was almost like being in New York’s Grand Central Station.

I was one of the first people in line to meet the customs officer, a burly man in a baby blue cotton shirt and dark blue slacks. I handed him my passport and took in his nametag, which I could not read. He noticed my stare.

“You speak English? Why are you here?” he asked, with a thick accent.
I looked up into his dark brown eyes. “I… I... I,” I stuttered.
The man smiled. His big, toothy grin put me at ease.
“Can you tell me why you have come to Nairobi?” he said.
“I am here to build a school,” I finally replied, unsure as to why I felt so uneasy.
“The Maasai Mara.”
The man, still smiling, looked me up and down, with a puzzled expression on his face. “When do you leave for the Maasai Mara?”
“Well, I’m staying here in Nairobi for two days and then we’re flying to the Mara on Monday morning.”
“Ahhh, I see,” he said, stamping my passport. But his grip remained on my passport, as he handed it back to me. “Tell me… why are you really here?” I imagined him saying, as he stared with intensity into my own dark brown eyes.
I started to shake. He wasn’t letting go. I’m… I’m a good person, I thought to myself. I’m just here to build a school. Why won’t he give me my passport?

I then heard a voice in my head—maybe his voice—saying to me: "But you’re here for something else, too. You will find the answer. Africa has a way of calling people back to themselves."
Letting go of my passport at last, the customs officer smiled and let me enter Nairobi.
I was in Kenya.

That was in March 2008. For several years leading up to my trip to Kenya, I had been feeling restless. My life has never been ordinary. My list of youthful accomplishments include being one of the only males on an all-female cheerleading squad and winning a state championship, performing in musicals, being featured on state-wide television, winning awards for my volunteer work and grades. But I think what you may perceive as most un-ordinary about me is that I have done all these things without the use of my legs. I was born with sacral agenesis, a rare disorder, which, in my case, resulted with little control or use of my legs. At the age of three, doctors began amputating my legs until they were little longer than the size of two large eggplants. (A vegetable I’m not the biggest fan of, to be honest).

Despite that, somehow, through the greatness of my family, my friends and the supportive people in the small-town Wyoming community where I was born and raised, I thrived. I would never have accomplished any of the above had it not been for them. I was never treated differently. I was just Spencer J. West. A whopping 2’7” tall, who drove a car too fast. Who went to all of his proms with his best friend, Marci. I’m just a little guy with big dreams and buckets of courage. And I like to laugh a lot.

But in the years leading up to Kenya, I had found myself living a somewhat conventional life: working a stable job, earning a good income, yet employed in an industry that didn’t challenge me, or even appeal to me very much. I felt like I was drowning. Yet I knew every person on this planet was here for a reason. I knew that I too had a purpose. A calling.

One small problem: I didn’t know what that was.

My good friend Reed Cowan had been telling me almost since the day I first met him in 2002 that I should be a motivational speaker. That I could inspire people. At the time, I was an undergraduate communications studies student at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was also working part time
as a clerk at an Old Navy store. Reed swaggered in on that wintry day and we quickly became close friends.

“Public speaker!” he would say over and over again.
“That’s your calling! You inspire people!”
“I am so boring. Who would want to hear me speak?” I would typically respond.

No one else had any other suggestions of what it is that I was called to do in this world, and at the time I certainly couldn’t figure it out for myself. So, like many young people, I settled into a funk. I just existed. My life had no passion. Then Reed asked if I would come to Kenya to help him and his family build a school for Free The Children. At first, I didn’t know if it was such a good idea.

At the end of that first trip to Kenya, after a dinner of stew and rice, I sat out on the stone patio of the center where Free The Children works. I had had such an amazing trip. So many things happened that touched the core of my heart and got me thinking of my life’s purpose. I thought about one little girl I met in the village of Emori Joi, who said she didn’t know white people could suffer too—like me, living my life without legs. I thought about my loving family, who never made me feel like I was handicapped.

“Why are you really here?” I whispered to myself.

And then it hit me. It hit me just like that warm Kenyan air for the first time when we landed.
Reed was right. I could inspire people to do whatever they wanted. To love who they were despite what they looked like, where they were born or who they were born to. In the end, aren’t we all unique and special? I just happened to wear my differences on the outside, because I had no legs.

I then remembered a passage I read in The Alchemist, a book by Paulo Coelho:

“… before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World
tests everything that was learned along the way. It does
this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which most people give up.”

But I had refused to give up. Just like the shepherd in The Alchemist, I discovered that my path has always been right in front of me—since the very first day I was born.

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Meet the Author

Spencer West is an inspirational and charismatic speaker for the social enterprise Me to We. In 2008, he travelled to Kenya to help build a school in the Maasai Mara, where he met young people who strive to overcome challenges every day. This experience helped him recognize his true calling—to motivate and inspire people around the world. Since he began speaking, Spencer has reached over 1.8 million people, including students, educators, faith-based groups, and families with his encouraging words.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are brothers and co-founders of Free The Children. Their work has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, BBC, and The Today Show, and in Time and The Economist.

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Standing Tall: My Journey 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing young man....shows you can overcome any obstacle if you want to. I am from the same town as Spencer and remember seeing him around. Nothing ever stopped him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago