by Erick Sturm
My wife and I started attending church again after being invited by the parents of our daughter’s best friend in high school. It was December of 2002, and we received a Christmas card inviting us to their church. We had both been thinking of attending church again after being away for quite awhile. Although I was completely unaware then, looking back on this now, it is obvious to me how God was working in our lives with just a simple card.
This led to us returning to church and meeting some incredible people who would become very close friends. I remember walking out onto the courtyard after service one Sunday and spotted a motorized wheelchair. It was turned away from me, so I couldn’t see the person who was seated in it, but there were numerous people around it, and they were all laughing. I moved in closer to sneak a glimpse of the person in the chair and that is when I first saw Ruben, a hispanic man, dark hair, goatee and a tremendous smile.
I don’t even remember when I was actually introduced to Ruben because it seems as if he has always been a part of my life. He has that effect on people. He has a way that makes you forget he is even in a wheelchair. With a personality so robust, you see right past everything external and focus on the man. I do remember the first time I knew Ruben and I would become great friends. We were at a mission gathering, a fund raising event, and Ruben was telling me one of his stories. Now Ruben always began his stories with, “This is true. I kid you not!” Just writing that now makes me smile, but I digress.
He was in the midst of this story when he suddenly stopped, and stared beyond my shoulder. I turned to see what he was looking at and it was another man in a wheelchair. He seemed to be lecturing someone else on the etiquette of speaking with a person in a wheelchair. I looked back at Ruben. “That’s a shame,” he said “He has a chip on his shoulder, always has.”
“Who is that?” I asked. He told me and said they were actually friends, but they looked at their situations very differently. The other man is still angry and bitter, so he takes it out on people who are able bodied. If you approach him to talk and you don’t lower yourself so you are not looking down at him, the first words out of his mouth are to let you know how you should approach someone in a wheelchair.
“Wow.” I said “That might intimidate me enough to not approach someone in a wheelchair.”
“Exactly!” Ruben said, “I don’t even know the rules myself, and I AM in a wheelchair. Heck, if I want someone lower, I’ll just ask them to get lower!” Ruben laughed, and that made me laugh. “You know,” he went on, “In 1965 I was born crippled, in the 70’s I was informed that I was not crippled, I was ‘handicapped.’ Then came the 80’s and I was no longer handicapped. I was just ‘physically challenged.’” Now I was laughing. “But today,” Ruben went on, “I am happy to report that I am no longer crippled, handicapped or physically challenged. I just have special needs. It’s no wonder that fully able bodied people don’t know how to act around or refer to people with disabilities, excuse me, people who are physically challenged … uh, I mean with special needs, because we can’t even agree on what to call ourselves!” Now I was laughing so hard I was crying. I gain my composure enough to ask, “Well, what do you call yourself?”
Ruben looked at me for a minute, then spoke, “Me? Well I’m just permanently yet comfortably seated.” I never forgot that and it still resonates with me, and because of Ruben, I know we all have ‘Special Needs.’ It’s just that some of them are more apparent than others.
You would think that there should be a limit to the challenges one faces in life, you have Cerebral Palsy, that’s it, that’s the limit, right? Unfortunately that is not how life works, and Ruben wouldn’t face his biggest challenge until the birth of his youngest daughter Emily, and that is when the real story begins.
After knowing Ruben for many years, and getting hundred’s of his “This is true, I kid you not’s,” and seeing what he and his family must deal with daily, I suggested we make a movie based on his life. I can truly say I have never met a man who has inspired me as much as Ruben Alvarez, and you will be simply amazed by his story, and this film.