Skydiving, bungee jumping and swimming with dolphins may sound like typical bucket list wishes, but for 42-year-old Willie, it’s just a way of life.
With such an extensive list of adventurous experiences, one would never guess that Willie was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects the use of his limbs and makes a wheelchair a necessity for getting around.
It’s no wonder he gained the name Wild Man Willie with all his thrill-seeking adventures. In fact, the name stems from Willie’s very first adventure — skiing — nearly ten years ago.
“I had so much fun and was laughing so hard all the way down the hill that my tongue actually got frostbit,” Willie said. “Everyone was cheering, ‘Go, Willie, go!’ Then someone yelled, ‘Go, wild man! Go, wild man!’”
From then on, the name stuck.
Willie’s passion for adventure is nothing new. With four older brothers growing up, Willie was never treated like he had a disability — he was just a typically developing boy who wrestled and swam just like other kids his age. Because of this, Willie had a happy childhood. That is, until he reached high school.
Throughout high school, Willie faced relentless teasing and began to experience low self-esteem. And after the passing of his brother and a close friend, Willie developed separation anxiety.
“I just needed someone to talk to who wasn’t a family member or bias,” Willie recalled.
That’s when Willie found Susan Hansen, a therapist from United Way supported Catholic Family Services, who taught him how to advocate for himself, get involved in his community and build confidence.
Willie began regular sessions with Susan, utilizing a particular form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy. This form of therapy helped him to improve communication, see other people’s perspectives, monitor anxious behavior and become more assertive.
Through group therapy sessions, Willie learned how to better handle co-dependency issues while gaining confidence through connecting with other people with similar issues.
“Catholic Family Services helps me stand up for myself, yet they are there for me when I need them,” Willie said. “I feel like I can go to them about anything and don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not. I can show emotion — good or bad — without feeling like a burden. They’re like family. They feel your pain and happiness.”
Over the five years Susan has served as Willie’s therapist, she has seen significant improvements in Willie’s level of self-esteem and decreased anxiety. The two still meet occasionally to ensure he stays on track and doesn’t slip back into old habits.
“I don’t know what I’d do if it weren’t for Susan,” Willie said.
Willie lives alone, gets around his house on his own and drives a vehicle. Susan has helped Willie see the importance of many things, one of which is to accept his cerebral palsy.
“When something comes to mind that I want to do, I don’t sit there and have a pity party for myself, I just do it,” Willie said.
Willie’s message follows him wherever he goes and can be heard while speaking at schools and businesses, all the way to his volunteer work at a local organization. For the past 18 years, Willie has motivated children with disabilities as a camp counselor at Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis. There, he shares with children what Catholic Family Services has instilled in him — that you’re not defined by your disability, that you can do almost anything you put your mind to and to never give up.
Thanks to United Way and Catholic Family Services, Willie holds his head high, is proud of who he is and inspires others to do the same.
About Catholic Family Service, Inc.
Established in 1955 by the St. Vincent De Paul Society, Catholic Family Services provides individual, group and family counseling. Their therapists confidentially treat a wide range of personal and relationship issues while supporting healing and improved mental health through professional counseling and psychiatric services. Catholic Family Services has been a United Way funded agency since 1995.