Breaking Down Barriers with Advocacy and Building a Positive Attitude

I was privileged to talk with an old friend today, he has been featured in Bucks County Courier Times regarding his work and so many other countless social media channels. I hope you will walk away motivated and encouraged beyond words like I was after our conversation with a completely different outlook on life. We constantly need to be challenged about the way we think and approach things in life to prevent burnout, find our purpose, and really find out what life is all about.

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Hi Jimmy, thank you so much for joining me for this interview. I wanted to share your story with the world and inspire others like I have been inspired by your journey. Can you tell us a little background about yourself ?

I’m 37 years old, born and raised in Philadelphia with spina bifida, a chronic, lifelong, physical disability. I ambulate with the use of braces and crutches and I also use a manual wheelchair. Currently living in Langhorne, PA. I graduated from Holy Family University in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and inducted into the Psi Chi Honor Society. I have a passion to motivate and help others. I like the outdoors and will take advantage of nice weather. I’ll sit down to watch my favorite shows or a movie, but I’ve always and continue to live an active lifestyle. This has been true since childhood when at 10 years old I joined a wheelchair basketball team, and also participated in wheelchair track/field until I was 18. Since then, I’ve been exercising to the best of my ability. I know my limits and I do the best I can, which is true of everything I do and want to accomplish. I believe that if I did my best and it didn’t happen, then it wasn’t meant to be. Everything happens for a reason. It doesn’t mean I gave up. I have never and will never give up. Sure I get disappointed, but I move on because I know that we weren’t born into this world to do everything, but we were born into this world to do at least one thing. And when we think things can’t get any worse, they turn out better than you’ve imagined.

Right now more than ever, I feel that mental health is more important than ever. I have been following your work and see an amazing resilience and incredible qualities that you implement that help me put into practice a more “positive” attitude. Can you share your attitude and your approach to life and how you address changes and/or obstacles you come across?

If there was one quote or advice you can give to the world, what would it be?

I encourage others to follow my motto I made up in high school, “Never give up; quit your crying; live by my motto; keep on trying.” My active lifestyle is not just about being outdoors or outgoing; it’s also about me being outspoken, to stand up for what I believe in and to be there to provide feedback when someone has a problem or an issue they want to discuss. I’m a very big talker, speaking in front of someone or large audiences has never been a problem for me. A perfect example of that was my social media live feed I began in Nov. 2016 I called #motivateumonday, in which every Monday I displayed different adaptive exercises and talked about a different motivational topic. While I don’t do those segments anymore; it provided many opportunities. I believe that all the exposure I received from that, from being on Fox News, to local newspapers, to being on the radio, and recognized by a politician, and other features has led to what I am currently, which is a disability advocate and a member of the Middletown Township (Bucks County) Human Relations Commission. I’m doing exactly where my passion lies and it’s been a rewarding experience with even more exposure that has helped me in making a difference in the lives of others. In my free time I like listening and singing to music, helping to cook recipes at home, and writing, particularly poetry. I especially love spending time with friends and family. My parents have always been and continue to be the most positive influence in my life.

Is there something that you recommend to someone to help build this contagious positive attitude and outlook on life?

 My lifestyle goes above and beyond my life’s story. It is not about my limits, the obstacles I have to deal with, or the challenges I face.  When I want to accomplish something, I turn, “How can I do this?” into “I can do this!” Sure, I may not be able to do certain things, but that does not stop me from trying. There is no quit in me. While it may look great to have a high level of following, my life continues to be about my level of leadership. I learned from how I was raised by my parents that the difference you make in one individual is bigger; it means so much more than how many people follow you. It was my parents who taught me to be the best version of myself instead of trying to be someone. It is those who you affect positively by being your true self that matters most. It is not some trend or phase that will eventually fade. It is by your example that will have a long lasting effect. When I was brought into this world my parents instilled a positivity into my life, so I want that level of positivity to have a long lasting effect the rest of my life. I have defied statistics such as being born with spina bifida with hydrocephalus (water on the brain), but I was not one of the 80% who needed a shunt. And, because my parents did not listen to the doctors and had them give me the treatment needed, then I wouldn’t be who or where I am today. My parents welcomed me into this world with open arms and raised me with unconditional love and support that they continue to give. That’s how I became the active leader I am today. I became outspoken because they spoke up and fought for me when it seemed like the odds were stacked against me. I became outgoing because they went out of their way to help me adapt to the real world. They did not allow me to be an outcast, a person labeled by what happened at birth. They did not let society categorize me. They did not shelter me from criticisms and judgments, however they defended me against such negativity and that sort of protection enabled me to be an individual that developed into someone with a positive attitude and persona. My parents did not want me to just be a part of something without pursuing my own dreams, reaching my own goals. They did not want someone dictating what was best for me. They did not want me to just follow something because that is what others did, that is what was supposed to be, and that is what’s right for the majority of individuals with spina bifida. What was best for someone else did not necessarily mean the same for me.

Their way of thinking, their motivation for me to become an independent thinker, with a no quit attitude, motivated me to want to spread that kind of personality. Living a life with confidence, self-esteem, and positivity is essential day after day. Being a person who has the determination and will to keep going has been beneficial in me staying happy and I feel blessed that I not only was raised by a mom and dad that I could never show as much love and support they’ve given me, but since birth I am surrounded by other dear ones and friends who have accepted me, are there for me, and make me feel that they are blessed to have me in their life.

The pandemic, especially during lockdown was a huge change not only for me, but everyone. It has proved to be an obstacle in my life, maybe the biggest one, but my approach has been the same when facing a change or obstacle. That approach is staying positive, staying motivated, believing that everything happens for a reason, and having faith. Having faith I believe is the most important for a person’s physical and mental health whether it is having faith in something and/or someone. I have faith in my beliefs and in my family, which has helped me stay strong during these difficult and trying times. I have overcome many obstacles and I know that we are still not over this certain one just yet, but I take things day by day, hoping and praying, keeping the faith.

While I do have a positive outlook on life with a positive attitude, I am not positive 24/7. But it’s ok to feel miserable. It is ok to feel disappointed or sad. It is ok to frown and cry. Just keep going and doing your best, so you don’t stay that way, feeling so down and out, that you can’t get yourself back into things. The way to a positive approach to life starts with yourself. It starts with loving yourself, accepting yourself, believing in yourself, accepting yourself, being happy with yourself. When you are aware and realize that life is worth living then it will help you live a happy, physical and mental healthy life. You don’t always have to accept the way things are, how they’re going. Just understanding that you can do this will help you in how you can deal with cards you are dealt. I’m a perfectionist, which at times helps me and others I help because I pay attention to detail and always see things through. Other times it is my downfall because I may take so much time on one thing that I lose time on other things. That’s a part of me that I know I have to continue to work on, so I make it to my advantage instead of it staying to my disadvantage. Continuing being the best version of yourself and not trying to be someone else is what matters most in your life. Everyone has an opinion and at times it will not go along with yours, which is okay. We are all entitled to our opinion and we all have a right to be heard. When that opinion is an intent to harm, that is when we don’t have to listen. To this day, people have been there to support and encourage me, however there are still those who still think I am not enough and/or I don’t do enough or I should be doing something else. Sometimes there are those who think I don’t do anything at all. Well, when an opinion is a negative way to inflict harm on another, you do not have to listen. I know and believe that, but it doesn’t mean that it never bothers me. Sure it gets to me because I am in disbelief in some of the things that are asked of me or said to me. I’m a college graduate who has worked for many years, particularly with children and has volunteered a lot of my time. I haven’t stopped my efforts in making a positive impact, so how can anyone say something negative about that? You have to ask yourself this….Do they support you in any way? Do they live with you? Do they help in your decision making? Have they ever heard of you before? Do they even know you? First of all, if they don’t even know you, then just forget that person. If they don’t support you or help in your decision making, then what right do they have? If they know you or at least have heard of you, then they should know better. If not, then they are not the best fit in your life. Stay true to yourself. If they can’t handle that, then that’s their problem. Not yours. Maybe the problem is then. They are not happy.

Simply said, but might be the hardest thing, especially if you’re like me….if you need help, ask for it. Get help. From needing help carrying something to carrying out a task; it’s okay to ask for help. You tried doing it yourself or you know it’s beyond your ability, so it’s not a sign of being weak. Not everyone will always be willing to help, but there will always be that one person or group of people that you can rely on. We at times may feel lonely, but we are never alone. When there is no around to help, you’ll find a way. Someone or something will come around to help you. That is true when you need physical help to stay on your feet and when you need mental help when you need to stay on level ground. There will always be a way to get you the assistance you need to stay on a positive journey, to the road of happiness and success.

You have been working on something and have been an advocate for people, can you tell us about this project?

My advocacy work:  I wasn’t working when the pandemic began and I started to wonder what I was going to do with my life. Well, in the fall of 2020 two major things happened that would make me wonder no more. One, an assistant editor of the Langhorne Ledger interviewed me for a story that she got published as an article, which was about how I’m staying motivated during the pandemic, which concentrated primarily on how I would help my Grandmother in her recovery from two strokes by exercising with her, which I started with her before the pandemic. Then, someone shared with me an advocacy training program called TRAIL (Training Regional Advocates to Impact Legislation) and told me I would be a great advocate. So, I completed the training and graduated to become a certified advocate in May of 2021. During that time I with a group of individuals advocated for paid leave legislation for the state of Pennsylvania. The story I shared with the program, its affiliates, the media, and Congress, which I took partly from the Langhorne Ledger article that I mentioned, centered on 2019, when, as I previously stated, I was helping my Grandmother recover from two strokes while I was working. I wondered if my job were to be full-time, how I could manage working and helping my mom and aunt with their mom, my Grandmother. My story went from being shared with the group to being featured in local newspapers and social media. After graduation, I went on to self-advocate until I was invited to join TRAIL 2.0. In the version 2.0 that took place in the last few months of 2021, we advocates took from what we learned on what advocacy is and how to be an advocate in the first TRAIL program, and applied it to taking our story one step further, from sharing it to actually designing a presentation in hopes that it would be heard not just by the media and a handful of politicians, but ultimately, Congress. I chose to create a video presentation that went beyond my story. I shared the facts related to my story in hopes it would give Congress a clearer picture of why paid leave is important. After completing that program; it didn’t take long for me to get invited to participate in the third version, TRAIL 3.0, which is what I am currently doing. In this version, I will be helping to facilitate virtual town hall meetings speaking with candidates for U.S. Senate and Governor for PA from both the Democratic and Republican side to talk about the issues the disability community face. I am looking forward to continue my advocacy journey!

What is the most important message you have for us today?

Everyone has a purpose in life. We all may not know what our purpose is in life. You may think you know what you’re doing and then life throws you a curveball, many curveballs and you keep striking out. So, what you’re doing isn’t working out. You may feel like you got our life in order. You set your goals. You have a plan. You even have everything mapped out. But the little distractions that happen from day to day can ruin your whole week and you wonder why you even bothered to set priorities when you don’t have enough time to take care of them. Then, you figure, well, I wasn’t able to work towards my goal this year; it’s ok, there’s next year. How many of us said that in 2019? I know I had a picture of what 2020 would look like. I am willing to bet that none us could have predicted what was about to come. But remember what I said, that everything happens for a reason. Continue to work towards your goals. Be ambitious. But if this pandemic has taught us one thing; it’s that we must take things day to day and not look too far into the future because we cannot really be sure what it will bring. It’s ok to think about the next day or even the next couple of weeks. But there is no use in worrying about thinking in years. Change can happen every day and we have all had to make changes in recent years, some of us big changes. Sure, when the pandemic hit, I was overwhelmed with sadness, worry, and fear. I didn’t know what to expect and what I was going to do all those months during lockdown. But I didn’t just wait to see what would happen. I hoped. I prayed. I also put my thinking cap on and realized that I didn’t have to sit home and do nothing. I could still keep busy by doing the two things I love, coming up with recipes and exercising. I started doing what a lot of people were doing. I posted recipes and exercises on social media, but I made it my own. Plus, since I wasn’t working, I became more available to visit my Grandmother and exercise with her to help her recover. Throughout her recovery, in 2019 and 2020, I posted our times together on social media, until she sadly passed away in Oct. 2020. My promise to her was that I would keep her name alive. I never thought I’d make good on the promise in the way that it happened. The story I created to share when I first started my advocacy journey is still being talked about. So, you see, one thing could lead into that opportunity that leads into more opportunities. One promise made or one accomplishment you achieved. Just because you arrive at a dead end or a stop in your journey, doesn’t mean you are done. What is meant to be will happen for you, but you can’t always wait. You have to put the effort in and do the best you can. And if you don’t get to do the things you dreamed of or expected to do; it doesn’t mean it is your fault or anyone else’s. You did your best. It just means that you were not meant to do it. If you do just one thing in life, then that could lead into so much more. Never give up!

If there was one thing people can understand on how to advocate and help others, what would it be?

 Maria, listen to my segment on the YouTube video I sent you on how to build a relationship with legislators. My 3 P’s can be applied here. Patience, persistence, and perseverance when talking about advocating and helping others. Patience because not everyone wants to be helped at the time or not helped at all. You’ll find a way to help and advocate for others. Persistence. If one way isn’t working, try another until you have exhausted all options without exhausting yourself. Self-help and self-care are most important. Take the time each day to focus on yourself. Do the things you love and care about. Take a breath and enjoy life. Surround yourself with those who care about you, love you, will never take you for granted, and will never take advantage of you. If your inbox always seem to overflow, then sort things out. Focus on what is most important. What absolutely has to get done first? Can this be done while I do this? What can wait? What can I throw away and not worry about at all? And please promise yourself not to worry. Tell yourself that you threw it away because you know it will do you more physical and mental harm than actually benefit you or you know you’ve tried your best and you’re missing out on what’s most important…YOU! Falling behind on yourself will make you burn out, which will in turn make you and things miserable. Your pace will become slower and slower until you can no longer play catch up. So, whatever is working for you, keep at it. There’s nothing to fix. Perseverance. Never give up on what you’re passion about. If it’s what you are meant to do, then it’ll happen. Everything happens for a reason. Never give up; quit your crying; live by my motto; keep on trying.

I am overwhelmed by the wisdom you have shared with us today. I have much to learn from you. I had to challenge myself and really change how I approach many things in my life which is great, we all need to be confronted and challenged. If anyone wants to reach out to Jimmy to learn more about his work, you can contact him at [email protected]

Check out some of Jimmy’s work here:

https://www.facebook.com/jed.henderson.0280237/videos/10160030643790515

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