By Collin Atwood
Everyone was on their feet, clapping and completely mesmerized at what they had just witnessed in the Cleveland E. and Phyllis B. Dodge Room. The crowd had just heard a story that kept them at the edge of their seats.
Wesley Hamilton, an adaptive athlete, motivational speaker, and founder of Disabled But Not Really, came to Springfield College to tell the community about his inspiring journey from walking on two feet and hating himself, to being put in a wheelchair and learning self-love.
Hamilton was born and raised in the east side of Kansas City where he “lacked opportunity” growing up. He had never witnessed anyone from his community be successful, so he had no reason to believe in himself. Hamilton said, “I became a product of my environment.”
On top of being in a community that is low in success rates, Hamilton struggled with obesity and the need to fit in when he was younger. All of these factors contributed to the negativity in Hamilton’s life.
“I could say that I was a negative person… I hated life, I hated myself,” he said. “I chose the negative route and that just led to a lot of bad choices and a lot of bad decisions.”
In Hamilton’s mind and everyone else’s around him, he was not going to make it to 21. That was his reality, so that is how he lived his life. Once he turned 21, Hamilton said, “I celebrated 21 like I never celebrated any birthday before… I celebrated on another level.”
“By the time I hit 22 my life changed forever… My life changed to make me perceive things differently,” he added.
At age 22, he became a father.
His daughter really set the stage for him to turn his life around. When everything in life seemed to be against him, his daughter was going to be his way to an improved life. He wanted to do better for her and wanted to be the best father he could be.
That is exactly what he did. He got a job and was thinking about doing right by his daughter. He tried to give her a better life than he had.
“I was doing everything right,” Hamilton said. “I was developing into this gentleman.”
Unfortunately, thinking about doing better is not enough. Changes still needed to occur and Hamilton was not changing the way he thought he was going to.
“I still had the mindset of the streets,” he said.
No matter how hard Hamilton tried to move on to a better life, the darkness from his past would always make its way back to him.
“A week after my 24th birthday I was shot multiple times to my abdomen which left me paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of my life,” he stated.
Audience members knew he was paralyzed because he was in a wheelchair right in front of them, but silence still filled the air. For 10 seconds, one could hear a pin drop.
Hamilton was so close to changing his life — the birth of his daughter was supposed to change everything. Instead, his past came back to stop whatever progress was being made. His struggles with obesity and health continued, as well as his efforts to fit in. Adding being paralyzed to that list marked an all-time low for Hamilton. His whole life seemed to be going in a downward spiral right before his eyes. “I’m defeated,” he said.
“Every day that I woke up I just wanted to die as if I wasn’t already dead… I was running around in a heartbeat, but I was dead inside,” Hamilton added.
Hamilton really struggled with his image. He was concerned about how the world saw him, even before the accident. Being paralyzed only added on to that. Hamilton didn’t want people to look at him as someone different, because he thought that all he had in life was fitting in. With that mindset, being in a wheelchair meant he had nothing.
The one person who never saw Hamilton any differently was his own daughter.
“My little girl didn’t see a problem… she called my chair a Superman chair,” Hamilton said.
Once he realized he did not need anyone else’s opinions to be happy, he reached out to his doctor for ways to be healthier for his daughter.
The doctor told Hamilton that his eating habits needed to improve. After Hamilton realized that he needed to change his life on his own and that no one was going to do it for him, he enrolled in a local community college and took a dietitian course.
That dietitian course is what changed Hamilton’s life.
“That moment I opened that book up, on nutrition, I fell in love with it… I never loved food as much as I do now because I know what’s in it,” he said. “The science of it changed my life.”
One might not think the negativity surrounding him could be destroyed by a simple nutrition book, but it was. This love for food and nutrition flipped Hamilton’s life around. A life he never thought possible was manifesting itself right in front of him.
He was finally taking control of his life.
In less than a year, Hamilton lost 100 pounds. That meant everything to him. Hamilton was ecstatic when talking about his weight loss, because he was proud of himself.
The accomplishment of being healthy and losing weight proved to Hamilton that he could do anything if he puts his mind to it. He shouted, “Believe in yourself and it can happen!”
Hamilton’s new and healthy lifestyle completely diminished his depression.
“I wasn’t depressed no more… I wasn’t anything but happy,” he said. “I never smiled until I was in a wheelchair.”
Hamilton screamed at the crowd, “I was never even happy until this point!”
His improved mindset changed his life dramatically. Hamilton had a whole new list of accolades. On top of starting his own organization, he became an award winning adaptive athlete, and he was featured on a Netflix series called Queer Eye.
Disabled But Not Really is an organization that gives equal opportunities to the disabled community through programs focusing on fitness, wellness and mental health.
But beyond all those achievements, there is another one that speaks more volumes than the rest. It did not make him money and it didn’t help anyone but himself.
“I literally faced the man that shot me and told him thank you,” Hamilton said.
Suddenly it felt as if the whole crowd was looking up to the shortest one in the room. He had done something that most people could not even fathom. A lot of people can’t even thank someone for holding the door or forgive someone who accidentally bumps into them.
He forgave the man who took away his ability to walk.
“I went years telling people that that man gave me life when he was trying to take my life. It was time for me to let him know that too,” said Hamilton.
He believes he was nothing until he was in a wheelchair, so he thought that his shooter should know he did him a favor.
Hamilton, who was once a dead man walking, depressed, unhealthy and had no hope of becoming anything, is now unbelievably fit, confident and above all else, happy. Hamilton is the true embodiment of the spirit, mind and body.
Photo Courtesy Springfield College Marketing & Communications