Spencer West was born to stand out. Not only is he a motivational speaker for Me to We and author of Standing Tall, but he lost his legs just below the pelvis at age five due to a disorder called sacral agenesis — an abnormal development of the spine — and has never let it stop him. Now, at 31, he’s about to embark on his toughest endeavour yet: climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, in eight days. Spencer’s goal is to raise $750,000 for Free the Children, bringing sustainable clean water programming to 18,500 Kenyans, who last year experienced the region’s worst drought in 60 years. These 20,000 or so steps to the summit will show the world that you can do anything you put your mind to, and that you can make a difference in the world. We asked Spencer about growing up different, how he’s preparing for the gruelling trek ahead, and how we can help him redefine possible.
Q: What inspired you to choose climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro over any other initiative?
A: It started in 2008 when Reed Cowan, a good friend I met a few years prior, convinced me to go on a volunteer adventure to Kenya with Me to We to help build a school. I have always heard that Africa has a way of calling you back to yourself. That was made especially clear to me on this trip: Kenya changed everything.
Shortly after I arrived in the country, I visited a Free the Children school in a community called Emori Joi. As soon as I got there, I was swarmed by students and young people who asked me every question under the sun, including “Where are your legs?” To this day, it is this experience and one particular moment that stands out for me. A little girl told me, “I didn’t know this could happen to white people too.” That’s when it hit me: there is a greater purpose for me in life. I can use my story to show young people obstacles can be overcome and help them understand that we all need a helping and can lend a helping hand — no matter who we are, where we are from or what colour our skin is.
That trip is why I chose to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa.
Q: How have you been preparing for such a difficult and gruesome trek?
A: I will be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with my two best friends, David Johnson and Alex Meers. We are so excited but also scared out of our minds! During the past several months, we have been both mentally and physically preparing with our trainer, Andre. We’re following a strict physical workout regime, including cardio and weight training, to ensure we are fully prepared — for anything. Thanks to their generous support, we’ve been training at the YMCA gym in Toronto.
Although we have mapped out our route up the mountain with our guide and team, we will need to adapt along the way. Some of the way up I will use my wheelchair, and other times I’ll walk on my hands or with the assistance of David and Alex.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is my greatest and toughest challenge yet, but I know that by helping and supporting each other, my best friends and I will tackle the climb — together.
Read on to see how you can redefine possible in your community>>
Q: “Redefine Possible” is such an empowering mission. What do you encourage families to do this summer to
redefine possible in their communities?
A: For me, it’s really about using my story and the challenges I’ve faced throughout my life to inspire and empower others. I want to show that it doesn’t matter what your abilities are or where you come from. If you work hard, never give up and laugh a lot, you can achieve anything. And I’m living proof of that!
That’s why with the Redefine Possible campaign, I’m calling on individuals around the world to join me and redefine their “impossible” — whether that means tackling a difficult project, travelling halfway around the world on a unique adventure or overcoming a personal obstacle. I’m encouraging them to step outside of their comfort zone and get involved in whatever issue they’re passionate about.
For instance, families can get involved by volunteering together in their local community, take a family international volunteer trip to a new country or parents can simply encourage and empower their children to take action towards a cause they’re passionate about. Just like my parents and friends saw potential in me, I see the potential in all of us.
Q: You speak so candidly about being stereotyped and bullied growing up. What would be the best advice you could give to kids who are having a hard time themselves?
A: Though I have faced bullying and many challenges throughout my life, my parents taught me to never give up and always believe in myself. Things are already tough enough in school without being bullied, and when a bully preys on your greatest vulnerability — for me, my physical handicap — it can have a debilitating effect, from feeling distracted in class to being outright terrified in the halls.
That said, with my story I want to help young people. The Jason Mraz song, “Details in the Fabric,” says it best for me: “Hold your own, know your name and go your own way.”
I encourage kids to discover their own identity and never give up. Have more compassion towards others, courage and confidence in yourself and build a sense of community around you. On top of that, finding a good support system of individuals you can turn to so that you don’t have to deal with bullying on your own. It’s important to believe in yourself and get involved in something you’re passionate about this summer — whether that’s helping the less fortunate or participating in your favourite summer sports leagues. Whatever your passion is, always believe in yourself and never give up.
Q: How can our readers get involved in Free the Children, Me to We, and your incredible journey?
A: [Anyone] can visit Free the Children to connect with me, follow my journey and donate to help me reach my fundraising goal, by sponsoring one step on my journey up Mt. Kilimanjaro. The site contains updates about my climb (from my training sessions through to the actual climb itself), my blog and interactive videos; and through social media and the #RedefinePossible hash tag, you can share stories on how you plan to redefine possible this summer.
Watch Spencer talk about his journey:
Discuss: What do you think about Spencer’s mission? ?What could you and your family do this summer to redefine possible in your communities?