Motivation and determination in life is a true thing of beauty. Some people have it and some choose not to have it. Some might think that they have it hard, yet their definition of “hard” is something along the lines of coming up a bit short on the rent in any given month, not quite reaching personal goals, or the end of a romantic relationship.
If there is anyone who has turned a bad hand of cards into a full house it would be Ron Heagy. Ron is a quadriplegic who travels the world giving motivational speeches to people of all backgrounds. He has spent the last thirty-five years of his life bound to a wheelchair and counting on others to do everything for him. He has to be fed, bathed, and even jokes about losing his dignity when he has to be hoisted up out of his chair as his pants fall down for all the world to see. Yet, the most remarkable thing of all is how content he is with his life…and accomplished.
Growing up on the Pacific coast, Ron was your stereotypical teenage surfer which meant he hungered to ride the waves as much as he possibly could. But on one fateful day, the day before his eighteenth birthday to be precise, he decided to have a beach outing with his brother. He recalls giving his brother the last handshake that he could ever give somebody as they were on their way to the beach in the car. Within a few hours, everything changed. Ron was caught by a wave that torpedoed him underwater and into a sandbank with brute force which injuring his vertebrae to the point that rendered him paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life.
As the years rolled by, he didn’t let up or give in. He went on to earn his master’s degree by pecking on a computer with a stick in his mouth as well as winning awards for his paintings that were also produced by his mouth. I caught up with Ron on a day that he just happened to not be traveling the world delivering his message. Instead, he had just finished enjoying a satisfying breakfast of Swiss chard and onions grown in his personal garden.
DC LIFE MAGAZINE: Do you remember the first time you took the stage to tell your story?
RON HEAGY: It was a coach at a school that asked me to speak and I said yes. He told me that he’d see me the next Friday and I guess I took it lightly…I didn’t want to be a wimp and quit. That day came and I noticed everyone heading into the gym and a student asked me if it would be me that was going to be speaking to them. At that moment I told myself no way, I am not going to speak in front of 500 teenagers. I started to leave in a hurry and the coach caught up with me and told me that these kids have half the problems that I did and they’re giving up, so I should get in there and tell my story. And so I did and it was amazing and they paid me two hundred bucks. I realized that hey, this could be a job (laughs). I have now been speaking at public schools, businesses, and civic groups for 25 years. However, my heart is most passionate for those with disabilities, the younger generation in high school and those that think they live a worthless life.
DC: You’re traveling the world giving speeches about fighting through the grit instead of quitting, how does it feel as you look over it all?
RH: It’s mind-boggling that these young kids listen to a 54-year-old who isn’t on MTV. I think it is because kids are looking for hope. They’re looking for someone who has gone through the challenges and dogma of life. I got my own problems, I’m paralyzed from the neck down so I tell people don’t be paralyzed from the neck up because then we will have a real problem. Through it all, I’ve come to realize I’m an artist, having learned to paint with my mouth. When people see that they think “Wow, did you really paint that?” Then they start to begin to realize that maybe there is something they can do. I think they gain hope during those moments and they realize that maybe they shouldn’t give up and that there is hope for them.
DC: You’ve even produced award-winning paintings. How did this come to fruition?
RH: I was sitting around bored one day, and my mom said why don’t you paint. I told my mom that I refused to paint her house (laughs).
Actually, though, my mom said she refused to feed me until I tried to paint, as in do real paintings. She put a paintbrush in my mouth so I figured I had no choice but to try it out. I just tried hard, learned color, and before I knew it all of these things were coming alive. It reminded me of the potential we have that we never tap into because we think we can’t do something. I would have missed that if my mom wouldn’t have encouraged me. It’s a treasure to discover a hidden ability. It’s like an oil field under your house. You have no idea what’s buried beneath until you tap into the ground.
DC: I think your paintings speak louder than your average motivational quote.
RH: I hope they do too. I have one story about my paintings… there was a kid that his parents wanted me to take a few minutes and talk to him. I said I wasn’t going to talk to him unless he comes to me as I’m not forcing anything on the boy. The kid comes in to see me, baggy pants, head turned down and I asked him what was going on. He didn’t reply, and I then told him that I figured that if he was planning on killing himself then it wouldn’t matter if he talked to me or not. He then spoke and after hearing his story, I realized it was pretty bad. So I then said to him that we might as well just check out together. He looked up at me in a questionable manner and asked me what I was talking about. He told me that I couldn’t do that because I help people, and in response, I told him that he can help himself and other people too. I pointed to a painting on the wall and he was shocked that I told him I painted it with my mouth. I gave him the painting to motivate him that if he changes his attitude into a “can do” attitude instead of this “I want to die” attitude then he will succeed. Failure is a circumstance. It’s ok, you can fail at things, but you cannot just be a failure.
DC: What is camp can-do Maui?
RH: Well, I always hear from children in the community that they wish they could go to camp [sic] and do something special. I found out there was very little fully wheelchair accessible camps to go to in America. And once you are 18 or older then you can’t go anymore. So I started thinking about it to where I had a dream in which I saw this wheelchair accessible trail and cabins and river. I woke up and said that someone needs to build that!
I started an organization Life Is An Attitude Inc. I had the dream in 1997 and the camp was opened in Oregon in 2000. Then I envisioned the camps all over America. Later on, when I was in Maui, I met a lady in a restaurant that loved the idea of what I had already done in Oregon and recommended building the second camp in Maui. So now things are coming together more than ever. We have the property in Maui at this moment and we are working on the construction. We just need a little more help!
DC: When you are not motivating people on a global scale, what do you like doing?
RH: Spending time with my daughters and being outside, gardening, I enjoy developing and creating things. I have ideas for a 4-wheel drive wheelchair. I just enjoy natural beauty, not man made. And I enjoy Thai food a lot these days.
Donate to Ron’s fundraising campaign to continue the building of a wheelchair accessible camp in Maui here: https://www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/a-place-for-children-with-disabilities-to-thrive–3
Written by: Dan Fecht
You can follow Dan Fecht on Twitter: @allpepperedup
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Cultural and Poetry Editor