I'm always inspired by people who overcome whatever obstacles are thrown at them, and choose instead to live their lives according to their dreams. That's why I find Mary Verdi-Fletcher's story so encouraging.
Mary is an Ohioan who was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth, severely limiting the individual’s mobility. But such a profound physical disability did not stop Mary from enjoying a fulfilling childhood.
"My family always wanted me to have a ‘normal’ life,” Mary says, “and going to a school that was mainstream was on the top of their list." But it was when Mary returned home from school everyday that the seeds of her dream were planted.
"My mother was a professional dancer and my father was a musician,” Mary recalls. “So Mom would turn on a record and get my brother and me together in the family room, and she would create a dance. She instilled the love of dance within me."
As a young woman, Mary was swept up in one of the most contagious dance movements in history -- disco -- so she decided to enter a "Stayin’ Alive!" dance competition. It was a gutsy move, to be sure; and when the wheelchair-bound contestant and her partner, a trained gymnast, swept onto the dance floor, a hush fell over the crowd.
The pair performed with precision and passion -- and then came the big finish: Instead of lifting her in the air, Mary's partner somersaulted across the armrest of her wheelchair. The crowd went ballistic and a dream was realized.
Mary’s unlikely success, however, was not without its drawbacks. As she grew older and got married, she developed problems in her kidneys as a result of her condition, and lost both of them. Soon, she was enduring the pain of dialysis. The only time she felt good, she confessed, was when she was dancing; but the moment she left the stage, she would begin to feel ill.
Her husband could no longer stand seeing Mary in such agony, so he secretly consulted with her doctors to see if he could be a potential match to donate a kidney to his wife.
"This was the thing I wanted to do,” he said. “I love Mary, and it really pained me to see what she had to go through."
As luck would have it, her husband was a match. He gave Mary his kidney and, within one month, she was dancing again.
Today, Mary is the proud founder of The Dancing Wheels Company & School in Cleveland, a state-of-the-art studio that has become a world-class training center for dancers, choreographers and educators -- for those with and without disabilities. And Mary continues to teach -- and dance -- from her wheelchair.
From her mother's living room, to the disco dance floor, to the mirrored walls of her own dance studio, Mary Verdi-Fletcher has never accepted the myth that she couldn't be like everyone else. And if she ever heard the word “no,” she certainly didn't listen. Today, she is living her dream -- and making a living from it, too.
We're so proud to show you more of Mary’s story in the video and photos here. I think she will inspire you. She sure inspired me.--Marlo, MarloThomas.com
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