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Redefine possible: How Spencer West climbed Kilimanjaro -- without his legs

Photography by Michael Rajzman/Me to We Image by: Photography by Michael Rajzman/Me to We Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Redefine possible: How Spencer West climbed Kilimanjaro -- without his legs

Spencer West waits patiently for me at a coffee shop in Toronto’s historic Cabbagetown. Wearing his trademark slick black leather jacket, black-rimmed eyeglasses and wide smile, he uses my tardiness to catch up with some of his neighbours. "So I hear you’re going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro," a middle-aged man says to him as I walk in the front door.

Spencer is a keynote speaker for Free the Children (FTC), touring and giving talks on behalf of the organization, which was founded by Thornhill, Ont., natives Craig and Marc Kielburger.

The 31-year-old has two duties to fulfil for his standing-room-only audiences in elementary schools, high schools and universities across North America: inform them about the work of FTC, which runs education, alternative-income and development programs in 16 countries; and inspire them with his own personal story.

Spencer was born with sacral agenesis, a rare congenital disorder. He has never been able to walk and, due to a series of operations, has no legs below his hips.

The man in the coffee shop then asks the question that many people ask when they hear Spencer is about to climb one of the tallest mountains in the world: "How are you going to do it?"

"Well," Spencer says cautiously, and then with more confidence, "I have a personal trainer who is helping me to be physically prepared. For the climb itself, I’ll take my wheelchair for part of the way, walk on my hands for another part and then, just for the rockiest parts, have someone carry me."

Paul DeAngelis, the owner of Mountain Climbing Adventures in Oakville, Ont., and Spencer’s guide for the climb, has mapped out a route over a part of the Tanzanian mountain that few people climb. The route will take a couple of days longer than most climbs, but it will be a flatter ascent.

Page 1 of 3 -- Learn more about Spencer West's background on page 2
Getting to the top will be a major achievement for Spencer, but not his greatest one. When Spencer was a child, doctors told his parents, Tonette and Kenny, that he would live 18 - mostly inactive - years at most. Nobody listened.

Spencer’s family treated him like any other young boy, enforcing a curfew when he began to party in high school and encouraging his participation in sports. He performed handstands and back extension rolls on his high school’s cheerleading squad in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and helped them win the state championship.

Today, Spencer’s doctors believe he will live to a ripe old age and think he’s in better shape mentally and physically than most of his peers.

The Kilimanjaro climb, a campaign he’s calling Redefine Possible, is just another example of how he has overcome the impossible. Publicly, the purpose of the climb is to raise money for sustainable clean-water projects in Africa. But personally, it’s to show other young people that they can accomplish their life goals, despite any perceived barriers.

Climbing mountains has been a key theme in Spencer’s talks since he joined FTC four years ago as a motivational speaker. But Kilimanjaro will be the first mountain he will climb physically. To train, every other day for most of the winter he went for a rigorous 30-minute ride through his neighbourhood. He walks the stairs on his hands and does weights with his trainer.

Mentally, his mind sees only success - so much so that he admits he was taken back when an FTC staff person in Kenya asked him last summer: "What happens if you fail?"

"I had to really think about it," he says, after a long pause. "But I realized, if I fail, it’s OK too - at least I tried. The journey is more important than the destination."

This has been Spencer’s unspoken motto since he was a child. After doctors concluded that he would never walk, at least not naturally, he was given a brace to straighten out his bones, then he was given prosthetic legs. He didn’t like either one. He pulled them off and learned to walk on his hands.

His family treated him as if he had no handicap. In one incident described in his book, Standing Tall: My Journey (Me to We, 2011), a preschool-age Spencer sat on the curb near his house, throwing stones out onto the street. His maternal grandmother received a phone call from one of the neighbours, worried about Spencer. His grandmother in turn called Tonette.

"Tonette," she had pleaded, "he’s going to get hurt. Cars can’t see him. Go and get him."

"Mom," Tonette had replied, "Spencer is a little boy and he is going to do little boy things. He doesn’t think he’s any different than any other child. I want him to throw rocks and to pretend he is Superman. I want him to be happy."

Page 2 of 3 -- Read more about Spencer West's involvement with Free the Children  on page 3
Free the Children cofounder Craig Kielburger is amazed by Spencer’s latest fund-raising endeavour. "There are some people who climb mountains to be the first, to say they put the flag at the top," says Kielburger. "But for Spencer, the reason is love. The only reason he would put his body through that is for there to be an outcome that would serve others."

Spencer and his climbing partners, David Johnson and Alex Meers, came up with the idea to raise half a million dollars - through online donations and personal gifts - to provide water to thousands and irrigation to some of the driest parts of Maasai Mara in Kenya.

Kenya holds a soft spot in Spencer’s heart. Feeling his life had hit a wall, he went to the country in 2008 to help FTC build a school. He wanted his life to have meaning.

During that trip, Spencer spoke to a group of children at an elementary school FTC had built in Emori Joi. At the end of his talk, a young girl put her hand up and said, "I didn’t know this sort of thing happened to white people," referring to Spencer’s lack of legs and use of a wheelchair.

Not long after, Spencer called FTC and became one of their motivational speakers.

Editor's note: Spencer West reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on June 19, 2012. Follow his journey at freethechildren.com/redefinepossible.



This story was originally titled "Redefining the Possible" in the June 2012 issue.

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