Someone’s different? Be a friend, Ms. Wheelchair Virginia tells Virginia Beach fifth-graders

Angela West is public speaker and a state pageant winner. She has a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and works as an Asian cultural broker in VCU’s Center for Family Involvement, which helps parents and children with disabilities.

And when West was born, doctors said there was little chance she would ever walk, talk or do much at all.

Angela West shares her story with fifth graders Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, at Tallwood Elementary School in Virginia Beach. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
Angela West shares her story with fifth graders Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, at Tallwood Elementary School in Virginia Beach. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

“I’m blessed to be alive,” West, who is from Chesapeake, told about 30 fifth-grade students Thursday at Tallwood Elementary School.

West, Ms. Wheelchair Virginia 2015, was invited to speak to students about treating people who are different with respect.

She told them how when she was born, her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, cutting off oxygen for 15 minutes and leading to the cerebral palsy she lives with today. West said she believes that was then she developed her “never give up” attitude.

“I think I was born with it,” she said after the presentation. “The doctors said I wouldn’t live past a week, so I fought the doctors when I was baby, and I’m still fighting, so I think it comes natural to me.”

West demonstrates why it is important to look someone in the eye with a 5th grade Tallwood student. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
West demonstrates why it is important to look someone in the eye with a fifth-grade Tallwood student. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

Wearing her pageant sash and tiara and speaking from her motorized wheelchair, West recounted in the Tallwood Elementary library how she was terrified as a fourth-grader when she had to change schools.

She spent many days alone because she couldn’t play like everyone else, she said. She was sad, lonely and afraid. Other students laughed at her wheelchair.

Then one day, a classmate approached and asked her to play.

“She changed my life,” West said, smiling.

The two girls became inseparable. They attended high school and college together. West was in the friend’s wedding and later held her baby.

West responds to a student's question. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
West responds to a student’s question. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

That experience inspires West to share her message, she said. She wants to give everyone who is different the chance to have a friend and know they are not alone.

“I was in a school last week, and I saw a girl in a wheelchair,” West said. “She said to me, ‘If you can do it, I can do it.’ ”

Besides relying on a wheelchair, West has an attendant with her at all times. Her physical limitations are not her biggest obstacles, however, she said. It’s the people who tell her “No,” the people who say she can’t do something.

She recalled how as a college student she wanted to take a public speaking course. The teacher told her she couldn’t because of the halting way she spoke from the cerebral palsy, she said.

West moved down the aisle to encourage students to ask her questions. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
West moved down the aisle to encourage students to ask her questions. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

West smiled. She got an A in the class, she said. That drew applause from students and teachers in the library.

West also took questions. Students asked how she does certain things, like getting out of her wheelchair and into bed.

“I can do anything you can, just differently,” she told them.

Guidance counselor Tammy Schubart took notes. Among her takeaways: You always have choices. Attitude is everything. Always look people in the eyes.

5th graders at Tallwood Elementary posed with West after her presentation. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)
Fifth graders at Tallwood Elementary had their photo taken with West after her presentation. (Kelly Kultys/Southside Daily)

Before closing, West told the students she needed their help. She can’t reach everyone with her message on her own.

“You only have one life,” she said after the presentation. “Are you going to change the world, or are you just gonna sit back and let the world change you?”

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