WINTER GARDEN — The speaker used humor to put the students at ease and then shared a dose of reality to drive the point home: You are special.
“You might not know my pain, and I don’t know your pain — but pain is pain, and hope is hope,” Nick Vujicic said Jan. 21 on the West Orange High School auditorium stage in front of 800 freshmen. The rest of the ninth-graders and the sophomores, juniors and seniors watched the inspirational speaker on classroom televisions.
Vujicic, 32, was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1982 without arms and legs, though he does have a small foot extending from his left hip. He has tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare congenital disorder, and said he encountered bullies throughout his childhood. At age 19, he began speaking at youth meetings, and he now talks to students at schools throughout the United States and around the globe.
Because children and teenagers don’t always know how to react to Vujicic when they first see him, he makes them laugh as soon as he positions himself on the table onstage.
He lives in California with his wife and 2-year-old son.
“He’s already my height,” he said.
Then he said if young people ask him what happened, “I tell them, ‘cigarettes.’”
The first time he spoke before a crowd, he said, “I was so nervous I had sweaty palms.”
The first time he went skydiving, he said, “My knees were shaking.”
But behind the humor there are messages: Be thankful for what you have. You don’t know what you can do until you do it. Don’t let anyone limit you; miracles happen when you give yourself a chance.
Vujicic shares pieces of his life in the span of an hour — the highs and the lows — to let bullied students know they aren’t alone, to let them know they are loved, and to remind bullies that what they do and say can have a lasting effect on people.
He was teased constantly as a child. When he was 8, he said, he started having suicidal thoughts. When he was 10, he asked his dad to put him in the bathtub so he could relax; but what he really planned to do was roll over and drown himself. However, the vision of his parents and brother crying over his grave stopped him.
“Hope is there,” he said. “You just have to find it.”
His parents taught him his value isn’t determined by what he can and can’t do, or by what he does and doesn’t have.
“You can have all your limbs but a broken heart,” he said. “Who you are and how you treat others is what matters the most. Are you an encourager? Are you a giver or a taker? Do you uplift or tear down?”
He then engaged the students in a four-question exercise. He asked everyone in the audience to put their heads down, close their eyes and raise their hands in the air. For a “no” answer, they were to make a fist; for a “yes,” they were to keep their hands open. One by one, he asked the questions and surveyed the room: Have you ever thought of committing suicide? Have you ever actually tried committing suicide? Have you tried because of abuse at home? Have you tried because of bullying at this school?
The results were staggering.
Vujicic said of the 800 students in the room, about 100 had thought about suicide and about 45 had tried to kill themselves. It was almost an equal distribution of those who attempted suicide because of bullying or an abusive home life.
He stressed that this number represented the freshman class only and for a true representation of the school, multiply those numbers by four.
“I can say with confidence, but with a sad heart, that about 80 people in your school have tried to kill themselves because of bullying at school,” he said. “I don’t care about reputation as much as I care about someone’s life.”
He spoke to the tormentors.
“It’s not OK to tear down, to push,” Vujicic said. “Starting and spreading gossip is equally bad. … Being tough is showing strength. It’s not hard to tease me, but is it tough?”
He spoke to the females.
“Girls, you don’t need a boyfriend to feel loved. Give yourself a chance. Give yourself some dignity. Give yourself some time.”
He spoke to the males.
“Guys, you don’t have to prove yourself. You don’t have to join a gang to be cool.”
Students were then challenged to make a difference.
“Where do you stand?” Vujicic asked. “Are you ready to stand strong? Are you ready to stand for a change?”
The speaker asked them to rise and repeat his words: “To end bullying starts with me. From this day on, I will not tease or gossip. …”
West Orange Principal Doug Sczinski was grateful for Vujicic’s visit and expects it to spark a change in the students.
“That was incredible,” he said. “We were very fortunate to have him come talk.”
He hopes the teens will remember the full message of treating people with respect.
Some of the freshmen shared their thoughts, too, after Vujicic spoke.
“Nick’s speech opened my eyes and made me realize that if I want to change the world someday I have to start with myself and the ones around me,” student Danielle Serrano said.
Laurra Franco agreed.
“Nick’s speech has enlightened me in a way, not only to be as kind as you can be to other people, but to myself as well,” she said.
Grace Gregorre added, “The speech was very inspirational and moving.”
“The presentation was great; I thought it was great because it can save lives,” Terrance Jones said. “I am grateful that he was able to come to our school.”
Emma Gunn said, “I thought it was inspirational because for the kids who thought of killing themselves, he gave them hope.”
A few of the students went backstage after the program to meet NickVujicic. One of them was 16-year-old BradlySantiago.
The sophomore has been bullied at West Orange because of the way he walks, said his mother, VanessaAlvarez. She had to urge him to go to school the morning Vujicic spoke, she said, because the previous day some students had harassed Bradly, filming him as he struggled to walk and then showing the video to other students and laughing.
“He was feeling devastated,” she said. “He called me and asked to be picked up.”
Bradly was born in Puerto Rico about 13 weeks early, weighing two-and-one-half pounds. He spent two months in the hospital, fighting for his life and making incremental improvements, Alvarez said. Doctors gave him a 1% chance of survival.
He lived but has been plagued with difficulties. He suffered a brain hemorrhage and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy (spastic diplegy), which affects his ability to walk. He has dysphagia, making it difficult to swallow. He has endured multiple surgeries.
The family moved to Central Florida when Bradly was 3, and he began attending a special-education prekindergarten class at Tildenville Elementary School. Over time, teachers realized that although Bradly had problems with balance and walking, he was too intellectually advanced for the special-education program.
He has been in regular-education classes ever since.
Bradly’s years at Lakeview Middle were fine, Alvarez said, but he has been teased since starting high school. He has always been a motivated student, but there are days when he doesn’t feel like facing the tormentors.
“I try to tell him always, ‘You’re going to find good people, but you’re going to find not-very-good people in your way,’” Alvarez said. “You have to kick the stones and continue on … because that stone’s in the middle of your way. I try to make him think positive.”
It was important for Bradly to hear and see Vujicic.
“What beautiful work he is doing right now trying to motivate other people,” Bradly’s mother said of Vujicic. “Look how beautiful that is. (He) realized what purpose God has for him: to be a good impact on others’ lives.”
IronMen of God — a Christian men’s group founded by Windermere resident David Hill — presented motivational speaker and best-selling author NickVujicic Jan. 21 at West Orange High School. He talked to about 4,000 students, sharing his message of anti-bullying and suicide prevention.
This speaking engagement at WOHS was the kickoff to a statewide “Stand Strong” campaign.
Vujicic and some Southern California businessmen and clergy established Life Without Limbs, a non-profit organization, in 2005. He has spoken to more than 500 million people in the United States and 56 other countries, and he has experienced more than 400 million YouTube hits and 1,500 different YouTube videos.