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Wade Heath: How to make a difference

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Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 11:20 pm

What does it mean to make a difference in the world? Does it have to mean that you’re the president of a nonprofit, hosting lavish donor parties and presenting oversized checks to people? Or does it mean focusing on one community, a group of people or one life at a time?

Making a difference first starts by taking action for a cause that matters to you. For 14-year-old Hunter Gandee of southern Michigan, that meant doing something to help his 7-year-old brother, Braden.

Braden was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects speech, motor skills and, in Braden’s case, mobility.

“My brother means more than I can really tell you in words,” Hunter told me over the phone recently. “He may be my little brother, but I look up to him.”

Originally, Hunter was hosting a wristband sale at school during Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month in March to help raise money and awareness for his brother’s condition. He hoped others might better understand what CP is, and potentially that someone might figure out a new way to make his brother’s life easier, whether that be through mobility devices or finding a cure.

But he wasn’t going to stop there. Instead, Hunter kicked it up a notch and thought it would be a worthwhile idea to stage a walk for CP awareness. With the support of his family, Hunter launched a social media campaign with the name Cerebral Palsy Swagger, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and an official blog.

The name would also represent the walk.

“We were looking for new ways to spread awareness,” Hunter said.

But this was no ordinary walk. It had a twist. Hunter charted a course from his middle school in Temperance to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, some 40 miles away. Oh, and Hunter was going to carry Braden on his back the entire time. No big deal.

“... he’s a third of my weight,” Hunter told me, recalling the journey.

Initially, those around Hunter thought he was crazy for wanting to make the trek. But on walk day, not only did friends and family show up, but people he didn’t even know arrived to walk alongside them to show their support. The Facebook page dedicated to the walk swelled to a number of supporters about a thousand shy of the entire population of Hunter’s hometown.

Through heat, rain and rugged conditions, Hunter carried Braden, harnessed in a sling, the entire way. But at one point, the journey had become so uncomfortable for the younger of the two, they considered packing it in early.

“(Braden) had pretty bad chafing problems,” Hunter said. “I called one of my friends over the phone and he prayed with us.”

That prayer mixed with the presence of Braden’s therapist and another physical therapist they knew, suggested modifications to the sling which put the two back on track comfortably.

By the end of the walk, there was a hero’s welcome for them both. The crowds cheered, the media swarmed and Hunter smiled wide.

He had done what he had set out to do. He had spread the awareness he had hoped to spread. But what surprised everyone involved was how this simple story took on a life of its own and went viral. From as far away as the UK’s Daily Mail to as grand as “NBC Nightly News,” to as cool as ESPN, Hunter and Braden were everywhere. The tale of brotherly love shot all over the world, was being shared rapidly online and had become the feel-good story of the moment.

“We didn’t expect this to get this big. But we’re really thankful our story has spread this much,” Hunter said in awe.

The head of his class, Hunter was tapped to give an address at his eighth-grade graduation, where he discussed how one person can change everything — how it takes one action to ignite a better tomorrow. It has become an expectation to hear these sorts of inspirational things at commencements, but it carries a certain amount of influence and weight when it comes from someone who has walked the walk, if you’ll forgive the pun.

One thing Hunter never expected to do was inspire others around the globe by his actions. He not only raised awareness for something he cared deeply about, be he also inadvertently underscored how love and light shine bright when its source is sincere and full of purpose.

“One person is all it takes to spread joy and happiness. We showed people that there are good things out there — that you can make a difference. I’m just a 14-year-old boy. If I can make a difference, we all can,” he said.

Listen to the full interview with Hunter from my radio show at TheWadeWire.com.

Columnist Wade Heath is the founder of DoGoodBeGreat.com.

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