There was a time in my life when I could run up the stairs – two at a time – all the way to the top – even if the building was ten stories high.
For me, there was no better feeling than the burn in my calf and thigh muscles as I climbed the stairs. I loved the increased pulse rate and the heavy breathing puffing at the end. Exhilarating! I would take comfort in the knowledge that I was burning up the calories – and I usually rewarded myself with a slab of chocolate – and a diet Coke – afterwards.
I did that by choice. And I took it for granted. I didn’t think twice about accessing a building – ever. I didn’t need to. I was young, fit and able. I could climb to the top of the world – if I wanted to.
Then everything changed. In one split second I was paralyzed from the neck down. Decisions were made on my behalf. I was medically boarded – banned from my chosen teaching career – without any consideration of what I wanted. Suddenly I was cut off from parts of society and prevented from participating in all sorts of things due to physical barriers. I was like an alien in a world designed specifically for able-bodied people. I was left to deal with the aftermath – loss of confidence – and worse – defeat, failure, frustration, depression and no sense of self-worth.
I came to hate steps – be it a flight, a few or just one – it doesn’t matter. A step is something that once gave me a right of entry, freedom of choice and opportunity. It is now something I dread – evoking fears of isolation, segregation, restriction and frustration – a grim reminder of my reality.
This week I was invited to be the guest speaker at Ermelo High School. It was the official opening of a brand-new lift which was installed at the school to accommodate a young paraplegic girl. The community raised in excess of R 700,000 under the project leader Andre Vermeulen to make the school accessible for Mariska Venter, grade 8, who was left paralyzed from the waist down in a tragic car accident a few years ago. The accident also took the life of her dad, who was once head boy of the very same school, as well as the life of her older brother. Mariska’s story is one of unbelievable courage, determination and triumph over adversity.
The trip, for me, was emotional. The last time I drove along that road, a little over 12 years ago, was en route to that fateful holiday. I never made it back – on the same road – or in the same state. The town itself holds significant memories for me – victories, medals, aching muscles, freezing cold weather, hot chocolate, new friendships, fun – I participated in many a gymnastics competition held there.
This week, I sat there in my wheelchair, among the kids, in the warm winter sun warming my frozen bones, watching as Mariska cut the green ribbon. She wheeled herself into the glass lift. She smiled. My heart ached. I wanted to cry, as my mind was flooded with the painful recollection of how I was never able to go back into my own classroom again – and many other places. Why? Steps. Steps. Steps. Too many bloody steps.
But, I also wanted to shout out in joy and applaud wildly, as Mariska ascended the building – beating my most hated barrier – steps. Her friends had been carrying her up those steps since the beginning of the year. They are heroes in my eyes. Yet, I was excited that Mariska could regain her independence and reclaim her dignity. I have no doubt that she is eternally grateful to her friends, but no young lady wants to be carried anywhere.
The atmosphere was alive with love, care and concern – pure, raw humanity.
At first, I was amazed at how an entire community pulled together in a time of crisis to help one person. But, I don’t think the community has yet realized the value of the impact this project is going to have on each and every one of them. An entire school – 700 young minds – and their families and friends will be touched by Mariska’s story. The ripple effect of changed mindsets will live on for years to come – nurturing a tolerance, acceptance and celebration of differences and uniqueness. Also, imagine living in a community where one has the comfort of knowing that if anything had to happen, the people around you would care enough and be prepared to help in any way they can? People like this make the world a better place.
I am in awe Mariska’s courage, self-confidence and beauty – inner and outer. I am so proud of her. I have seen too many people in her position just giving up and withdrawing from society and from life itself. Her smile will forever be etched in my mind.
Tracy – I’ve only served three churches during my years as an ordained minister. My denomination is an independent one and part of that recognizes each church independently. They have their own governing structure and hire their own ministers which requires on site visits by the prospective minister. I have been at three churches during my ministry and visited in many in the process of being hired. At each I pointed out the barriers to worship especially access to various parts of the church especially to the sanctuary. Those I have served have removed those barriers and made access a part of their mission. Unfortunately barriers to worship exist in abundance. Thank you for continuing to remove them.
First, that is a great picture of you – thanks for sharing. Mariska is clear an inspiring and determined young lady. That is probably one of the reasons that her friends, school and community pulled together to make that change for her. I’m helping on a project to create a community garden at the moment and one of the key drivers is to fit a wheelchair lift to avoid those bloody stairs.
What a beautiful and powerful story, Tracy. And I believe that you are part of the ripple effect that you mention: by telling Mariska’s story and the way her community rallied around her, you are bearing witness to the power of love and shared humanity. Bravo to you, Mariska, and her schoolmates!
Tracy, thank you for sharing Mariska’s story of courage with us. I’m amazed at how strong the spirit and the will to live are. It doesn’t matter the age. It matters that in the face of tragedy, one can still choose life.
We are friends of Mariska`s mom. They were on their way back from our farm when the accident happened- I was shocked to the point of destruction. Since then we moved to our farm in the Klein Karoo and I have have kept tabs on Marika( Mariska`s mom) , and always kinda just asked about Mariska`s health in a fleeting manner ( I presume it is due to fear ) . Today when Marika forwarded your blog address , I realized just how thankful I should be . So easily does the little problems in life get one down and so easily we forget how awesomely blessed we actually are ! You are a true inspiration and a wonderful tool in God`s hand.
I have recently started my own blog – nothing spectacular- just ordinary things that happen on the farm.Please feel free to read some of the letters( some are in Afrikaans – my home language)
René – thanks for your comment. I do understand your fear of facing Mariska’s harsh reality. It’s common and it’s normal. But I can tell you that Mariska is a very courageous, determined young lady and I think she is going to do great things with her life still. She is an inspiration to many.
Hi Tracy, glad Mariska has such a positive role model to look up to, in you. It’s also wonderful that the community have rallied around her with support. Inclusive education is so important. I wish the laws around accessibility were better structured and properly enforced. It’s a great frustration to so many.
I agree, inclusive education is exceptionally important but very difficult to implement. But hopefully I can make a small difference by changing one mindset at a time. 🙂
Some trips down memory lane are much worse than others… As tough as this one might have been, it is great that you had to do it for such a positive reason.
I hope she inspires and motivates people as much as you do!
Thank you Anton. I have no doubt that this young lady is going to go on and do great things with her life. She is an inspiration to many.
What an inspiration you are, Tracy. And to Mariska, and her friends and classmates, you give me hope.
Thanks Cath. There IS hope… always.
Everyone needs to feel and to be needed, and that’s part of being “able”. I need your ability to be open and offer your stories and feelings every bit as much as you might need my assistance getting up steps.
Lovely use of steps as both what they are, and as metaphor for the obstacles you’ve overcome and still face.
Three of the four doors to (hopefully) our new house are wheelchair-accessible, and all amenities are on the first floor, including the best views.
That is so true Michael… we all yearn to be needed. It’s part of what makes us human. Thank you for your lovely comment. I’m so pleased to hear that your house is mostly wheelchair accessible. It makes my heart glad. 🙂