Following on from the amazing events that happened in southern Illinois at NubAbility, I took myself across to Royal Oak, Michigan for the last week of my time in America in order to finally meet Molly Stapelman - founder of the limb-different community's most popular foundation, the Lucky Fin Project through the difference her daughter Ryan was born with – as well as the rest of the Stapelman family.
Royal Oak is a beautiful town just outside of Detroit with a population of 57,000 people and showcases some superb culture and a special atmosphere. As much of a nicety as that was to be around, this second week had way more meaning to it than just a relaxed week in the USA.
This was the culmination of almost three and a half years of communicating across social media and FaceTime with Molly and the Lucky Fin Project as an organisation and I could not wait to see what was waiting on me for the rest of the week.
When the Stapelman's arrived at my hotel, it felt really surreal to them in the flesh. You know when you see somebody off the television in person and you have the 'Oh, snap! It's them!' moment? I definitely had one of those moments. Then meeting the 'Princess of Lucky Fin,' Ryan herself, was really memorable.
This little lady is the entire reason behind Lucky Fin Project and at her age, she may not yet know the impact she has triggered worldwide both through her and Molly's spirit. What I was most surprised with was how comfortable, strong and confident of a young girl she is. I knew we'd have similar childish interests, but this did not feel like a first meeting at all. The joy, positivity and atmosphere I felt from the Stapleman's was just terrific.
It wasn't long until I truly felt like I was a part of the family (especially with the welcoming from Dasher the family dog). Just like in Du Quoin, I had no idea what to expect in Michigan. It had already been the longest time that I'd been away from my family and, in a much larger town where I only knew one family, it certainly felt different when by myself – but I do believe I made the most of being outside my comfort zone, even if that meant agreeing to one of Molly's crazy spin classes long before knowing I'd be seeing the nightlife with her husband Dan!
Over the course of the week I saw so much of both Royal Oak and Detroit which serve me with the fondest of memories. I look back and remember hearing about the much more intricate stories behind LFP as well as the stories from the family. I also got to see just how hard Molly works day in and day out on the project. With the Lucky Fin Midwest meet happening the very next week, I'm so grateful that my stay didn't intervene.
As days went by the bond felt stronger and I knew that, as leaving time became closer, it wouldn't be an easy task to part. My final day in Michigan is perhaps my favourite. After partaking in a Detroit shopping spree – the Stapelman's took me to Detroit Zoo where the shenanigans continued to take place. Continuing to spend time with them only made the inevitable that much harder. Fast-forward to later that evening, I taught Ryan how to play the good old English game of 'Longies' in a move that later bit me back as Ryan downed me 10-8 at the finish.
After a momentous last day of doing so many American things, it was time to say goodbye. After the emotions had settled and the tears had been wiped away, I had chance to really take in everything from Illinois to Michigan over the course of the two weeks. It made me realise what a remarkably unique community I am involved with. From the incredible stories to the new friendships and overdue meetings, it was a heart-warming journey.
What I find most spectacular is that, years ago, I never expected to be in a community like this and never opened myself up to the possibilities of it. Having been with able-bodied people my whole life I never knew how to act around limb-different or disabled people and now I've got more friend limb-different friends than able-bodied friends!
I distinctly remember when I was seventeen in college. My tutor at the time, Carol Hodge, who has a difference of her own, passed me a pamphlet for a Easter break camp for teenagers with disabilities. Having never experienced being around such people, I immediately thought “Why would I want to do this? I'm not disabled.” Looking back I think I completely turned my nose up at it, but fast-forward four years plus the maturity, I realised how important it is to make strides for change in this community. Step-by-step, changes are coming and as I've grown and took notice of it myself in the last few years, I truly hope it ricochets into society.
If I could advise you to spend time seeing what goes on at camps like NubAbility and foundations such as the Lucky Fin Project, it changes your perspective. No becomes yes, and 'can't' becomes 'can.' I'll always look back at this trip as my longest and my greatest, and with eleven months to go until my next trip, I don't mind savouring in the inspiration I've picked up this summer.