Spencer West has led a life that's been more challenging than most.
Born with a genetic disease that caused his leg muscles not to work, his legs were removed at the knee when he was just two years old, with the hope that he could use prosthetic legs.
When that didn't work out, he had another surgery at the age of five, where the rest of his legs were amputated just below his pelvis.
“After my surgeries, my doctors told my family that I would never walk, sit up or be a functioning member of society,” said West, now 33, who comes from the state of Wyoming. “I set out to prove them wrong.”
It was a difficult road, though, as people often treated him differently.
“I was definitely a target of bullying, here and there,” he said. “One student thought it was funny to grab the back of my wheelchair so I'd stop abruptly, and my books would fall on the floor, and I would tumble out after them.”
West walks on his hands — he said he moves something “like a monkey” — and also uses a wheelchair.
Using his hands, he's done things such as walk 300 kilometres from Edmonton to Calgary to raise money and climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
It was after he graduated from university that West became involved with Free the Children, an international charity and youth movement founded in 1995 by 12-year-old Canadian Craig Kielburger.
The organization focuses on sustainable development in developing countries and encourages youth from developed countries to make a difference in the world.
West said one of his friends invited him to visit Africa, and help build a school through Free the Children.
“It was truly a life-changing experience,” he said. “I saw the incredible work that Free the Children was doing on the ground and breaking the cycle of poverty through education.”
After telling the African children his story, a young girl said she didn't know something like that could happen to white people.
“The way I interpreted it, she thought they were the only ones with challenges,” West said. “She didn't realize people outside of their community also had challenges.”
He said that's how he learned he could use his story to inspire people to look at challenges differently, but also to get involved with something they're passionate about.
West is now an ambassador for Free the Children, and is currently in the middle of a 10-week tour of Canada as part of the organization's We Create Change Tour. The tour is due to make a stop at St. Andrew's United Church in Sudbury May 16.
Joining West on the tour are 11-year-old activist Hannah Alper and the Canadian musical group Neverest.
“It's been very humbling,” West said.
“People have come up to me and said they're inspired or that they feel like they can make a difference, too.
“That's the whole reason I want to tell my story, not because of me, but because I want them to recognize that if I can do this, so can they.”
The Sudbury event is a fundraiser for Sudbury Minga for Maasai, which has raised about $146,000 for Free the Children's Adopt a Village project in Pimbiniet, Kenya since 2007.
Thanks to the organization, the village now has a new primary school, safe drinking water and access to a mobile clinic. The Sudbury volunteers are currently fundraising to build a tenth classroom for the school.
Sudbury Minga for Maasai co-ordinator Lori Adams said she's looking forward to hearing West speak.
“He inspires others to overcome obstacles and to push beyond limits and achieve their dreams, and he really is quite a role model, not only for youth, but adults as well,” he said.
Tickets to the We Create Change event, which cost $15 for students and $20 for adults, are available at Gloria's Restaurant and Convenience or by phoning 705-522-2018.