"What will you stand up for?"


Paraplegic man challenges county students to make a difference

The doctors told Spencer West’s family that he would never amount to anything.

West, an ambassador for the charitable group Free the Children, had both of his legs surgically removed when he was five.

“My family was told by the doctors that I would never sit up by myself, never walk by myself, and that I probably wouldn’t be a functional member of society,” he told a gym-full of Sturgeon County students. “At best, I would live an inactive and uninspired life.”

Now 33, West has since climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, walked on his hands from Edmonton to Calgary in 11 days and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for developing nations.

“My obstacles may be different from yours, but they can all be overcome,” West said.

Inspirational speakers

West was the keynote speaker at the Sturgeon We Day event Monday at Camilla School. The event saw some 550 students from across the county gather to learn how they could use their skills to change the world.

The school organized the event as a follow-up to the big We Day event held last fall in Calgary by Free the Children, said school principal Neil O’Shea. Featured speakers included UFC fighter Mitch Clarke, the Morinville Food Bank and the mayors of St. Albert and Sturgeon County.

West told the students that he was often bullied as a child. Kids would grab the back of his wheelchair so he’d tumble out, and groan whenever he ended up on their team in gym.

He got through it with the help of his friends and his parents, and became a star member of his high school’s championship-winning cheer team. He applauded Camilla School students for taking part in Pink Shirt Day this Wednesday to speak out against bullying.

“We have the opportunity every single day to make sure that everybody feels welcome at school. Instead of singling others out for their differences, why don’t we celebrate our differences and get to know each other?”

West said he joined Free the Children after seeing children in Kenya travel for miles to go to crowded, crumbling, dirt-floor schools for a chance at education. “They would sit in the mud and go to school. That’s how important education is to them.”

Looking to inspire others to donate, he and some friends decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania – the highest point in Africa – in June 2012. It took him about a week, and he did most of it on his hands.

The climb raised about $500,000 to provide clean water to east African nations, West said. Last year’s Edmonton to Calgary walk raised enough to provide 100,000 African children with clean water for life.

West said he does activities like this to inspire others to help. “If I can climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, what more can we all do to make the world a better place?”

Camilla School student Geena Kieftenbeld said We Day has had a huge impact on her school.

“I’ve always wanted to make change and help people in the world,” she said. Her school was now raising $20,000 through bake sales, wake-a-thons and a zombie run (where zombified students chase competitors through an obstacle course) to build two schools in developing nations.

Kieftenbeld said we might be small individually, but we can make a difference when we come together.

“The younger you start, the more you can do.”

West said it’s important to get messages like this to today’s youth.

“They don’t have to wait until they’ve graduated university or have a good-paying job to make a difference. They’re actually very powerful right now … and they have the opportunity to exercise that power to make a difference.”

West challenged the students to recognize what they have to give and to stand up for their beliefs.

“We’re looking for you guys to make a difference every day,” he said. “Before I leave, I ask you: what will you stand up for?”


About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.