Now in his 20s, when Torey Hett was one day old, his parents learned he had spina bifida, a condition where the backbone and spinal canal do not close before delivery.
?I have had a lot of surgeries through the years and with all those needles, I still cry,? he told a group of Hillsboro Elementary School kindergarten students Feb. 21.
Born and raised in Marion, Hett visited the school to talk about his disability and inspire them to never give up on their dreams, regardless of obstacles that may be in their path.
In his PowerPoint presentation, Hett talked about growing up in a wheelchair because of his disability, but also talked about what happened to him before birth.
?When I was growing in my mom?s womb,? he said, ?my spine grew around the spinal cord and in one little place the spine didn?t grow shut completely, and that spinal cord came through the spine and through the bone.
Using a rope to illustrate the spinal cord, he said, ?If my fingers were my spine, the spinal cord came through and where it came through it got damaged.?
Because this area is sensitive with all those nerves, Hett said, he lost feeling in the part that controlled his legs and feet, which is why he is in a wheelchair.
During his years in elementary school, Hett said he used a walker with the decal, ?96.3 KRZZ? on it.
?I was a cool guy back then,? he said, ?and now I have a bright orange wheelchair.?
Unwilling to give up
Hett credits his parents, David and Jamie, for helping him get through a lot of tough times in his life.
?My parents have been my backbone,? he said.
At an early age, Hett said his parents heard about wheelchair racing in Wichita. Although skeptical, Hett decided to try it.
?I got to meet all kinds of kids with the same disability or in a wheelchair just like me and I was able to relate to them.?
The first time he raced, he said he didn?t even have a racing wheelchair.
?An organization let me borrow one, but after that (first race) I was hooked?I had fun,? he said.
Hett said, ?The next time your parents are encouraging you to do things that maybe you don?t want to do, remember, they are looking out for you and want you to be involved and active.?
Given a choice, he said, which would you rather do, sit on the couch and do nothing or go out and exercise?
?Give something a try once, and I bet you will say, ?I can do this,?? he said.
One student said he wanted to roller skate, but his mom told him he was too little.
One little girl said she wanted to become an astronaut.
?Then give it a try,? Hett told her. ?Give it all the hard work you can and I bet you can be one.?
Hett?s disability hasn?t stopped him from waterskiing, snow skiing, hunting, fishing or dreaming of owning a motorcycle.
As a fisherman, Hett said he enjoys sitting back in a chair and relaxing while he watches his bobber, with a worm on it, waiting for a big fish to strike.
?You don?t need legs to fish, you just need to be able to reel in that big old fish,? he said.
Hunting is another activity he enjoys, and has shot a couple of deer.
?I go out early in the morning about 5 a.m.,? he said, ?probably a lot earlier then most of you.?
To get to his hunting destination, Hett rides a four-wheeler with hand controls. Once he gets to his location, he crawls into his deer blind and waits for the sun to come up and the deer to come out.
?My disability hasn?t stopped me from hunting,? he said.
When it comes to riding a motorcycle, Hett said he plans to have enough money to buy a special type with a sidecar attached to roll his wheelchair into.
?It will be a pretty cool day when I can own a motorcycle,? he told the students.
Hett said he enjoys waterskiing so much that he bought his own board?and showed it to the class.
?With normal skis, someone puts their feet in the boots and stands up on the skis,? he said. ?But they make this one with a chair in it and I put my feet in the boots and say ?hit it? to whomever is pulling me.?
When he is out on water skis, Hett said he forgets that he even has a disability.
?My wheelchair is sitting up on the dock and I am jumping the waves,? he said. ?I have had some wild crashes, too.?
Most people who try new things are bound to make mistakes, but that?s how people learn, he said.
After Christmas, Hett tried snow skiing for the first time.
?My family and I went to Colorado and it was a fun time,? he said. ?The first time I went down the slope, a skier had a big rope attached to me and then he was standing up behind me. When I started getting scared going down the steep mountain, he would put on the brakes and slow me down.?
After that first time, Hett said he didn?t need anyone behind him?he was going to do it on his own.
Hett plans to return to the ski slopes in March with some friends and is already getting his clothes packed for the trip.
A 2005 graduate of Marion High School, Hett also earned a degree at Tabor College.
He told the young students that even with his disability, he went to school and learned the same way as his friends.
?School is very important,? he said, ?and you guys are going to have a lot of tough times and sometimes want to give up. Ever have any of those moments when you say, ?I can?t do it anymore???
Hett said when someone asked him to go waterskiing, he used to say he couldn?t do that.
?I am in a wheelchair,? he told them. ?But when I did try it, I got so excited about the sport, I went out and bought me one.?
Hett said he has a fun time doing various activities and doesn?t worry about his disability.
?I can put that aside and have fun,? he said.
Following graduation, Hett accepted a position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Marion Reservoir.
?Back in January,? he said, ?I drove around with a park ranger and we went on back roads to count eagles. We counted 17.?
Hett invited the students to visit the reservoir and take in swimming or boating. While they are out there, he said they could ask their moms and dads to stop by the project office where he works and say hello.
HES counselor Mike Moran asked Hett about handicapped parking spaces, which are wider than the other parking spots.
Hett said if he parks in a regular space, it works fine unless another car parks next to him.
?If another car pulls in, there is no room to get my wheelchair in there and I am in trouble,? he said.
?Even the ramp at the school is important,? he said. ?If I had to go up the stairs, I would be calling one of you to pull me up.?
Moran also asked Hett what it is like to drive a car.
?I drove over here this morning,? Hett replied.
His first vehicle was a van with certain modifications. When he opened the sliding door, he removed the middle row of seats so he could get his wheelchair in that spot. He said he would then pull the wheelchair into the van and ?hop? over into the driver?s seat.
He now owns a truck. The door opens backward so he can pull the wheelchair right in behind.
?It?s another piece of freedom for me,? he said.
Moran also asked Hett about grocery shopping and if getting food off shelves ever presents a problem.
Hett said once in awhile items are out of his reach, like they are for most people at times.
?The one thing I need is sometimes on the top shelf,? he said. ?I usually have to find somebody who is tall and can reach up and hand it to me.?
Hett said there are times he needs help?similar to students, when they raise their hand with a question.
?I have to have help, I can?t be Mr. Independent all the time,? he said.
As for cooking and reaching for things when he gets home, Hett said his kitchen is like most others.
?My oven and sink are normal size,? he said.
Student has same disability
One of the students pointed out that Wenxi Funk, also in kindergarten, has spina bifida.
?Yes, I know,? Hett said. ?He has spina bifida just like me and he is going to grow and be really active just like you guys.
?I encourage you that when Wenxi is out on the playground, you play with him, too,? Hett said.
One student said, ?We do. We play with chalk.?
Another student asked Hett, how is it when he goes out with friends?
?Either they let me drive or they load my wheelchair up into their vehicle,? he said. ?We have a good time, and when going into a building I need to look for a ramp. But when I find it, I can get in.?
Hett said he enjoys going to the movies and that the theater in Newton has a row where he can pull his wheelchair right in.
He said he plans to visit more with their classmate, Wenxi.
?He is going to be my friend, now that I know him,? Hett said.
In addition to visiting the kindergarten classes, Hett spoke with other elementary students throughout the day.