As we tackle the wrapping, the obligatory celebrations, and the stress of 'year-end,' all bestowed upon us by the season of hope and good cheer, I'd like to share a touching reminder of the actual meaning of Christmas. This is a story that I urge you to take a moment to read because the meaningfulness will stay with you well beyond the holidays.
My tale begins in a Walmart store, a rather befitting location for this time of year...don't you think? And yet, none of what I am about to describe has anything to do with a toy or service Walmart provides. It has to do with a person - a very unique person who left an indelible impression on me, one day, when in the midst of struggling to put my merchandise on the conveyer belt of the checkout line at my local Walmart store. In the midst of the cookies, the dog food, a bunch of other nameless items, and one energetic four year-old derailed from listening to his mother's pleas to "come back to her side" by an "As Seen On TV" widget calling loudly to him from the distance, I found myself excusing my certain actions to the customer standing behind me then bolted to grab my son before he nabbed the object of his momentary affections. Somewhere in the throws of this turmoil, Steve showed up.
Two wheels on either side of him and a wide grin that met an extremely perplexed expression upon my return to the register, this stranger had happily and rather competantly taken up where I left off - leaving me nothing more to do but pay for my items and thank him. Focusing my eyes on his name tag, it finally dawned on me that this helpful soul - I would later come to know as Steve - worked for Walmart. That said, since that particular instance, I've come to learn that what drove Steve to maneuver his way over to my aid that day was not the rules and regulations imposed by Walmart but the rules and regulations this remarkable individual lives his life by. The fact that Steve has not been able to walk since high school has little bearing on the inspirational manner Steve has walked through life.
I would fully realize how truthful this statement was when making my weekly runs to Walmart, thereafter. Steve always added to the ease and joy of the experience and he did so again this past Thanksgiving Day when I happened upon him wheeling rather, unexpectedly, next to me at the townwide "Turkey Trot," a five mile jog every runner within miles of Madison, Conn, participates in. I marveled as Steve was speeding away. I would later reach out to him through Facebook, curious to learn more about his 'wheelchair racing.' What I learned floored me.
Steve Anastasio was born with Spina Bifida, a disease characterized by the incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or meninges (the protective covering around the brain and spinal cord). It is the most common neural tube defect in the United States—affecting 1,500 to 2,000 of the more than four million babies born in the country each year. An estimated 166,000 individuals with spina bifida live in the United States.
An only child who grew up in Rockville, Conn., Steve lived in an extremely loving home with two parents that watched, supportively over him, while Steve coped with the many social and academic challenges attending Haddam-Killingworth High School - a public school - a person surviving with Spina Bifida and bound to a wheel chair could expect some twenty-two years ago. Upon graduating, Steve would go on to work in the family business, Sally's Cleaning & Window Washing, in an administrative capacity. He would later branch out to work for Walmart.
Steve began "wheelchair racing" when he was in elementary school and continued on throughout middle school. However, health issues during high school caused Steve to give up one of the very hobbies that made him feel happy and whole. It wasn't until approximately nine years ago that Steve resumed racing at the encouragement of his friends. Today, Steve participates in 7-10 races per year - including half marathons - and sponsorships that include Compassionate Care ALS, an association which seems rather befitting given Steve's naturally giving, courageous, and inspirational nature as well as his new-found reason to race by the way of a seven year-old, little girl named Isabel Van Lingen.
Steve met Isabel on May 4, 2014, during what he terms his 'Dream Season' -- a moment in history that marks his participation in his first 10k - Hilltop 10K Road Race - as well as the beginning of a profound friendship between this incredible role model and a little girl who is struggling with her own diseases, both Epilepsy and Noonan Syndrome. This once only child now refers to Isabel as his little sister.
How Steve met Isabel marks a story that captures the heart and remains immortalized in a photograph taken by Sandra A. Madden - a photographer, writer, and employee of the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts. A brain injury survivor, herself, Sandra had been asked to photograph the winner of the Hilltop 10K quite haphazardly -- learning from the coordinator of the event just moments before the race began that the original photographer hired to take the photos that day could not attend. Positioning herself at the finish line, Sandra would go on to take a number of winning photos, but it would be the one capturing Isabel 'low fiving' Steve as he sped towards the finish line that would invoke such 'human' compassion and spirit in her that Sandra would feel compelled to share this photo with both.
With the help of social media, Sandra reached out to Steve. She would later track down Isabel's parents through the organization that held the event. In time, all three would come together and the birth of 'Team Inspiraton' would arise -- a selfless endeavor launched by Steve, with the help of Sandra, to mentor those coping with their own disabilities and inspire them to believe that "they can do anything!" And certainly, Steve has proven exactly that, having distributed numerous t-shirts with the image of Isabel 'low fiving' Steve on that life-changing day in hopes that the magnitude of this simple action would change the lives of many more going forward.
For Isabel, Steve's active participation in her daily life has provided an invaluable resource for this little girl to lean on and learn from during moments when her own strength and happy smiles give way to the realities imposed upon her by her own diseases. Standing by Isabel's side has given Steve more than just a disease to stand-up to. It has given him a precious little girl to stand-up for, whether it be during times when she might not be able to do so on her own or alternate moments when Isabel feels invincible. Steve knows what each emotion feels like. "I won't let her down," Steve says, resoundingly!
Suffice-it-to-say, Steve's fortitude and example brings new meaning to the Rascal Flatts' song, 'Stand,' I believe. Take a listen. The honesty and irony will astound you -- quite similar to the man, himself.
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