For the past 28 years, Joanne Orlando Lizza has lived her life from a wheelchair, perhaps living more fully than she could without it. In her own words, she shares her story…
“To the world you might be one person, but to one person you might be the world.”
I am not the winner of the lottery. I am not the recipient of a large inheritance. I am not the CEO of my own company. I am not on the payroll of a large conglomerate. I am a volunteer, and my success cannot be measured in dollars and cents. I receive my millions through the hearts of others.
My journey began in 1986 when I was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor of the brain stem. At this time my prognosis was unknown, my future bleak. I was a teacher, and could not accept the fact that my body was deteriorating each day. I pursued any small glimpse of hope that was put before me. Finally, after reading an article in Readers Digest, I found a doctor willing to operate.
“Your life will get worse before it gets better,” my doctor said, but I was ready for the risk. I felt unusually at peace with the decision. Friends and family were supportive, and in a very short period of time, I was on my way to New York for the surgery. The life that I knew was about to end, and my journey continued.
Life was hard for the next year. For months I could not walk, talk, eat, or breathe on my own. Tubes, drips, and machines kept me alive. I never lost faith, and was determined to continue my life somehow. Members of my family noted that I was “inappropriately happy,” but what other choice did I have?
After a year of rehabilitation for my body, a neighbor thought it time for some rehabilitation for my soul. She encouraged me to become a volunteer tutor at a local elementary school, and I was able to volunteer a couple of hours each week. The teacher in me was reborn, and a new chapter of my life began. My position has evolved into being a volunteer Tutor Coordinator at Centerville Elementary School. In this position, I train and supervise community members interested in becoming tutors. I currently have tutors servicing approximately one hundred at-risk students each week.
I have not regained my ability to walk independently–I use a wheelchair to get around. This disability has become an asset and an inspiration at school. The children do not see me as disabled, but as a teacher with special needs. They have a new appreciation for anyone with a disability, and often come to me with questions and concerns. Children who find themselves in a wheelchair due to a broken limb or physical problem have challenged me to races down the hall, or long “walks” around the school track. Challenges are more easily met when shared with others.
I am inspired by this quote of inspirational author, Gary Zukav: “When the deepest part of you becomes engaged in what you are doing, when what you do serves both yourself and others, when you do not tire from within, but seek the sweet satisfaction of your life and your work, you are doing what you are meant to be doing.”
I am certain that I am doing exactly what was planned for me to do, and I became even more certain of it when I began working with Stephanie, a first grader who would not talk. I worked with Stephanie daily, and used the “silent” time in my life to communicate with her as no one else could. We developed a code that only she and I would use. My brother and I used this same code during his daily phone calls to me while in the hospital. With one tap for “yes” and two for “no,” I discovered her likes and dislikes, her family background, and certain frustrations in her life.
After lots of patience and endless hours, Stephanie crept up behind me one morning and I heard a beautiful voice say, “Good morning, Ms. Lizza.” The silence was broken, and a wave of excitement traveled through my body. I was flooded with emotion, and once again, found myself speechless. My heart, however, was shouting for joy!
I am often asked why I volunteer. The answer is simple, “why not?”
Note: When Joanne became a grandmother, she was inspired to write a book about the things that she can do from her wheelchair that others can’t do. Nonna MIA’s Magic Chair was recently published and is now available on Amazon. For more information or to connect with Joanne, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.