In October 2019, at the Ensemble Travel conference in Seattle, I got to hear and talk to one of the most incredible individuals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. The theme of the annual travel agent convention was “Travel With Purpose.”
Spencer West lost his legs below his pelvis at age five. Yet, he has become an activist, author, video star, as well as a terrific motivational speaker, and an inspiring personality. He leads volunteer excursions for young people and adults. His story should encourage everyone to face challenges in life head on, and embrace change.
In his talk, Spencer discussed the challenges he overcame along the way, how an unfulfilling job led him to go to work for WE.org, and how he summited Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro. Spencer achieved this journey, that would test the fitness and aptitude of any person, on just his hands, only occasionally relying on his wheelchair.
West is a commanding presence on stage, yet he maintains a charming self-deprecating sense of humor. “I save a lot of money on shoes and socks,” he jokes while delivering his impassioned speech. Even in keynote speeches, you can usually hear some side chatter. Not this time. From the moment Spencer wheeled himself up towards the lectern, to the ovation he received at the conclusion, the audience paid rapt attention.
I reached out to Spencer and asked him to share some of the things he discussed in his speech. Please share his story with others, and watch the video (below) of his unbelievable journey to climb Kilimanjaro.
How important was it that your friends and family growing up treated you like everyone else?
Growing up it wasn’t a conscious choice on my part. It’s just what my close friends and family did. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how important it was to me. When I wrote my book Standing Tall, I sat down and asked my parents why they raised me that way and their response was“We were afraid if we treated you differently you wouldn’t take the risks you needed to become your own person. Plus,we wanted to make sure you were as independent as possible in case something was to happen to us.”
Tell me how you got involved in sports in high school?
At my high school in Rock Springs Wyoming, in order to be considered a well-rounded student you not only had to be good at academics, but you also had to be a good athlete. Academically I did well, but I had never played a sport. So, I decided to try out for the cheerleading squad because I had taken gymnastics as a kid. Not only did I make the squad but my loud voice and tumbling skills turned out to be an asset for the team, and that year, along with my incredible teammates, we brought home a state championship title.
How did the attitudes of the jocks change when your team won the state cheerleading competition?
What I found so frustrating is that our main job as a cheerleading squad was to support our high school sports teams. But many of these players teased us, us being the male cheerleaders, because they didn’t consider cheerleading a masculine sport. But after we won the state championship title, many of those players came up to us after to congratulate us and wanted to know how they could join the squad next year. We were able to create a social value around the sport of cheerleading.
What challenges did you face when you entered the working world?
As a teenager, when I had reached the age that I could legally start working, I started applying for jobs in my community. The usual things, retail, fast food etc. I noticed that my friends were getting interviews and landing jobs much faster than I was. I couldn’t even get an interview. I want to be very clear, that I don’t know this for certain, but I always thought that maybe my disability had something to do with my struggles finding a job. The thing I found most frustrating is that I don’t really need a lot of accommodations when it comes to the workplace. Usually it’s a stool to boost my height, but most things I can navigate in my wheelchair or on my hands. I eventually had to apply for a program called JTPA (The Job Training Partnership Act) and an incredible woman named Beth helped me find my first job as an information specialist for the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce.
Why did you leave a well-paying job to go to work for We.org?
To answer this question I need to back up and explain that growing up, it was implied by society and the community around me that the “North American” dream was to go to college study something that would get you a good paying job so that you could have “the house, the car, 2.5 kids and all the things’. So that’s what I did, I chased a paycheck instead of my passion. I studied at Westminster College and got a degree in Communication. But when it came time to find a job there was nothing available in my field. I eventually landed a job answering phones at a salon and spa. Very quickly I climbed their corporate ladder and became one of their operation directors. However, this job wasn’t my passion and I realized I wanted a job that paid well, but more importantly, made the world a better place. In 2007 a dear friend and mentor, who knew I had been struggling, invited me to go on a volunteer trip to Kenya with him and his family. After some deep thought and soul searching, I said yes. This trip changed my life forever. I saw firsthand the work WE was doing on the ground with their international development model WE Villages. I had never seen a development model not only be sustainable, but it was the community members that were breaking the cycle of poverty for themselves with some gentle support from WE. I was also learning about the youth empowerment work they were doing in North America and abroad to support youth in making a difference and I knew I wanted to be involved in a larger way. When I returned home from my trip, I almost immediately applied for a job at WE. Things moved very quickly and just a few months after returning home from Kenya I packed up my life in the United States and moved to Toronto Canada to work at WE’s headquarters as an ambassador, motivational speaker and leadership facilitator.
How did you become a motivational speaker?
Throughout the course of my life people had invited to various events and classrooms to tell my story about the loss of my legs. It wasn’t until I began working for WE that I started speaking professionally. I had the distinct honour of working with some incredible people, one of them being the co-founder of WE Marc Kielburger. He taught me how to properly craft a speech, know your audience and to tell my story in such a way that anyone could relate to it whether they had legs or not. After that I did the hard yards of speaking whenever possible to get my story and message out there. Over time I built a career that now includes having spoken for some of the major businesses and schools in the world. Organizations like Virgin Atlantic, Staples, KPMG, Bank of America and Microsoft.
What has been the reaction to your YouTube videos?
To be honest YouTube has been slow to the uptake. We are still trying to figure it out. As of now it’s been a hodgepodge of content from vlogs, interviews, behind the scene antics, and as of late a motivational video every Monday. For now, it’s a glimpse into my life and how I navigate the world as someone who identifies as gay and has a physical disability. We’re always looking for subscribers. (shameless plug) Here is the YouTube link
What led you to go on the Kilimanjaro trip, and were some of the lessons you learned about yourself?
Halfway through my journey with WE I was starting to feel guilty. I was telling most audiences that they needed to start getting involved with things that they care about and either raise awareness and or funds for that cause. But I was just talking about it and wasn’t actually doing it myself. I got to a point where I could no longer tell folks to do that when I had never done it myself. So, I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and raise a half a million dollars for clean water in East Africa, whom at the time, was facing one of the largest droughts they’d seen in over 60 years. I knew attempting to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro on my hands and in my wheelchair would be no small feat…get it? Feet? Ha! Anyways, I asked my two best friends Alex and David if they would do it with me and they graciously said yes. We spent and entire year campaigning, working with a personal trainer and meeting with our guide that would lead our trek. In June of 2012 we set out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. The hope was that I would do 50% on my hands and 50% in my wheelchair. But after the first day we realized it would be more like 80% on my hands and 20% in my wheelchair. I’m grateful that my two buddies came because I needed their help. They were amazing at saying encouraging words like “just a few more steps” “keep going, it’s really inspiring to watch you walk”. There were points during our trek where they would physically carry me or help push me in my chair. It was a given that if I’m going to attempt to climb the largest mountain in Africa on my hands and in my wheelchair, I was going to need help. But what I didn’t anticipate is that on summit day the roles would drastically reverse and my buddies would need my help. Around 18,000 ft. they got hit with massive altitude sickness and I didn’t. I literally watched my support system crumble to their knees before me. Genuinely, it was the first time in my entire life where I wished I had legs that day so I could physically carry my friends like they had carried me. But I don’t have legs, so instead I decided to focus on what I could do. My friends kept telling me that it was inspiring to watch me walk on my hands, so I figured if that’s all I could, I’d do that to the best of my ability. I stood in between them and hand over and hand and foot over foot we started to walk. We had to stop multiple times for my buddies to vomit and twice we physically had to help pick them up. But eventually we made it to the top. We collapsed and cried, took a photo, they puked, we took another photo and we celebrated. We had reached the summit and raised well over our goal to provide 12,500 clean water for life in Kenya. What we all learned from that experience is the importance of asking for help and then offering. That was the key to our success.
What should people know about “traveling with purpose”
Having traveled the world for my job and for pleasure, one of the things I’ve learned is that travel exposes you to new ideas, cultures and most importantly helps create empathy. I’m all for beach vacations as well as volunteering and I think at the end of the day it’s important to realize how your travel can impact everything. By that I mean, culture, the environment, how you represent your home country and what you do while you are outside of your own home. These are just a few of the many things I believe is important for us to consider when traveling with purpose.
For more information on Spencer: https://www.we.org/en-CA/about-we/me-to-we/speakers-bureau/spencer-west
or follow him on social media: Twitter – Instagram – Facebook.