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Good morning! My name is Ryan Haack, and I’m the customer operations – team lead at Dean Health Plan.
So, to address the elephant in the room, I was born like this. Try to put yourself in my parents’ shoes, having to explain over and over and over why their baby has…a full beard. It was tough…it was tough. Ok, ok, so I didn’t have a full beard at birth, but I was missing my left arm below the elbow. Back in 1977 it was a surprise to everyone in the room when I came out, especially my parents. After the initial chaos, they determined that despite my shorter arm, I was a perfectly healthy baby boy. And for the next 30-plus years, I couldn’t have cared less about the fact that I had one hand.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew I only had one hand; I just didn’t really care. I played baseball and football and basketball…not soccer, ironically…learned how to tie my shoes, button my pants and shirts, how to ride a bike…I just figured out the best way for me to accomplish the tasks I wanted and needed to do.
Fast forward to 2009. I was eating dinner at a restaurant near my house, and I see this little boy and…he has an arm like mine. Up to that point, I’d never really noticed the arm status of those around me, but he caught my eye. As I got up to leave, his mom ran to me, pulling him along, then stood there kind of presenting us to each other. We chatted for a bit, and then I left and they went back to their table. As I walked to my car I felt like I wanted to just hug them both and say, “Everything is going to be fine!” As I thought more about the experience with that little boy and his mom, it made me realize something incredibly important. I believe the single biggest contributing factor as to why I grew-up “not caring” that I had one hand was the supportive community that surrounded me.
My parents, my extended family, my friends, my teachers…and when I recognized that, I needed to try and create that same supportive community for others. In 2011, I launched my website, LivingOneHanded.com, and my first post was titled, “Buttoning My Back Left Pants Pocket Is Lame.” So, clearly, very highbrow when it comes to content. The website is where I share my experiences living as a person with a physical difference, from how I deal with being stared at, to my thoughts on and experiences with prosthetics, to how I sometimes have a little fun with my arm at others’ expense. Shocking, I’m sure. As I thought more about how I could serve this community, another idea came to mind. It probably won’t come as a surprise that the most common question I’m asked is…”How do you tie your shoes?” So, the idea was, I’ll make a funny video showing how I tie my shoes and then I’ll put it online for all time and anybody can watch it whenever they want. And to date, it’s been viewed over 16,000 times. I’ve made many videos since, most of them showing how I do tasks that you’d never really think about. In fact, until people asked me how I did them, I didn’t think about them either. Things like flossing my teeth, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush, jumping rope, peeling an orange (I’m convinced a person could have 6 hands and peeling an orange would still be a disaster)… As I did these things, the community continued to grow. In fact, one of the videos I made was about how I zip up my coat with one hand. Well, Eric Thomas in Indianapolis has a little boy, Sam, who also has one hand, so he Googled “how to zip up a coat with one hand” and there was my video. And for the last several summers now, my family has visited the Thomases in Indy. Eric is one of my best friends, because of that video.
Then, in 2014, the community grew even more. With the help of over 500 supporters, I was able to write and publish a children’s book called, Different Is Awesome! The idea for the book came from a real life experience wherein my younger brother Joey brought me to class for show and tell. Not to experience show and tell…I was what he brought for show and tell. So, the book tells the story of a little boy who brings his older brother for show and tell and each of his classmates gets to ask him questions about how he does things. And as you read through, you start to realize that each of the kids who are asking him questions are different in some way, too, whether it’s that they’re tall or short or have dark skin or a birthmark…and by the end, the reader realizes that we’re ALL different in some way or another and, well, that’s awesome! The book officially released in July last year, and the response continues to blow me away. I’ve sent copies to at least 20 different countries, including Peru, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France and Spain to name just a handful…so to speak. It’s led to opportunities for me to speak at schools and events all over the country. In January I was in Boston with the Helping Hands Foundation, in April I spoke at an event at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, in August I get to be a counselor at a camp in Northern California in partnership with the Shriners hospital there and on Tuesday, just two days ago, I drove up from Potosi, Missouri, where I got to help out at Camp No Limits where families with children affected by limb-differences spend a fun few days together. On a weekly basis I hear from parents and grandparents and teachers and principals and physicians and heads of hospitals saying how much the book means to them and how helpful it’s been in their communities, which is incredibly gratifying. When I see pictures of kiddos with the book it makes my heart sing. When I get an email from a mom saying, “We read Different Is Awesome! at least 3 times a night,”…parents, you’ve been there, right?
A mom in London sent me a video of her little guy reading it for the first time and when he turned the page and saw the character with an arm like his, he got this huge smile and pointed at the arm in the book and then pointed at his arm. He’s not even verbal yet and he recognized that they looked the same. I share this with you to show that we can all build community. And when we build communities, we change the world. And we can start right where we are. The ways that we serve people on a daily basis, no matter how routine or mundane we may feel they are, they change the world. You’re changing the world. And sure, that sounds cliché and pie in the sky, but it’s true. And maybe you have a different idea of what a world changer looks like.
You’re all looking at me, but right now, take a second and everyone look at the people sitting around you. They’re world changers. That’s what a world changer looks like. Now, guess what? THEY’RE ALL LOOKING AT YOU, TOO! This is basic logic, and I don’t care if you feel like it’s not true, I’m telling you a fact…you are a world changer.
That patient you comfort. That daughter you console after her mother passes. That child you make smile when you give them a high five and a lollipop. They’re part of this world, right? And you made their experience a positive one, even if only for that moment. I have news for you…you changed your community and, yes, the world for the better. And here’s the deal…that can be hard to remember sometimes. That it’s the little things that matter the most. My journey started with a conversation with a little boy and his mom. I encourage you to look for those moments, those conversations, those little opportunities you have to build a supportive community right where you are and then see where that leads. Continue to influence your communities in positive ways and every night before you collapse, remind yourself: I’m a world changer. Because you are. Thank you.