In 1976, my mom took me to meet, Joni Eareckson Tada. She was a young woman who had broken her neck in a diving accident at the age of 17 and she had published her first book, “Joni”. Earlier that same year, a friend of our family also dove into a river, breaking his neck but he had found someone to pull the plug on his respirator and he had passed away.
Joni’s story was full of hope. In the midst of her suffering, she had learned surrender. She had come to discover that God had a plan for her life, perhaps a better plan, even if it meant being a quadriplegic. Raised in a Christian home, my parents had taught us the true meaning of unconditional love. No one in my family had disabilities although, if I were a child in the public school system today, I’m sure I’d carry with me the label of, “attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder!” Our home had a wide front door, wide in materials yet also wide in expression. We had friends who were blind, deaf, had spinal cord injuries, down syndrome, mental disabilities, friends who we were taught to love and appreciate right alongside the members of our very own family.
As we were ushered through the bookstore that day to meet Joni, I noticed how she took her time with each person. As we approached, she smiled warmly, a smile that seemed to exude from her entire face. I lay my book on the platform in front of her and she signed it with a pen positioned in her teeth.
I ended up doing several autobiographical book reports on her through the years of my education, each time, hoping that my teachers didn’t communicate between them, finding out that I repeated the same story over and over again!
After meeting Joni, my mom and I continued to spend many days in the spinal cord unit of Valley Medical Hospital in San Jose. It was at a time when volunteers could walk through the front door and offer to feed patients and the nurses welcomed you. We ended up meeting another woman whose name was also, “Johnnie.” Her son had broken his neck in his first college football game. Having to drive 4 hours each way to visit him, my mother offered this woman a room in our home. African American with a soft voice and big, loving heart, Johnnie came into our lives and showed us an incredible example of faith and hope. She’d walk down our long, dark hall way early each morning, and all we could see of Johnnie at first was her white teeth through her constant smile and our little Pekinese dog would go berserk. We started each morning with a healthy dose of laughter. Through these experiences, meeting Joni Eareckson, spending time at Valley Med, having another Johnnie living in our home, and oddly enough, a new field hockey coach, a woman also named, “Johnny,” the Lord set my heart on becoming a Physical Therapist’s Assistant.
While in college, I met my husband to be, Greg who was a software engineer. We married as soon as I turned 20 and after three years, we had our first child and I became a full time mother. Our marriage went through many tumultuous seasons. In 2004, we began attending a new church and the Lord introduced us to three women who became my mentors and very dear friends, Judy, Nancy and Victoria, three women who had traveled all around the States, leading people through workshops on forgiveness. On my second visit to their home, Judy handed me a book and asked, “Have you ever heard of Joni Eareckson Tada?”
Had I ever. My eyes fixed on the face on the cover. It was a book of Joni’s which I had never seen before. It was as if Judy had just handed me an old friend. The title of the book was, “The God I Love.”
“I’ve never read this one.” I told Judy.
“You can borrow it for as long as you want.”
I went home and immediately began reading. I felt as though the Lord was saying something to me while I read Joni’s story once again, so many years later, a whole huge organization later, Joni and Friends which reaches around the world, “Kara, look at what I’ve done through Joni. Think of what I could do through your life, if you’d let me.”
When I gave the book back to Judy a few days later, she told me that she was going to be volunteering at one of Joni’s Family Retreats in the Santa Cruz Mountains in a few months. Often looking up the locations of her camps throughout the years, this had been one of my dreams. “I think I’m supposed to go with you.” I went home and talked to my husband and he agreed.
Several weeks later, as I opened the car door and stepped out onto the Mission Springs Conference Center, I felt like I had returned home. My husband and I lived in these mountains during the first six years of our marriage. I had brought our first son to this playground with a group of other young mothers and their toddlers. My husband and I had left these mountains after six years, leaving scars and hurts, moving on to another place, hoping for a fresh start. And now the Lord was bringing me back some 17 years later and the restoration process of new beginnings.
(see story titled, “Where It All Began“)
While at camp, I also received a phone call from Chris Noell of Joni and Friend’s Wheels for the World project, asking me to be a Wheels associate volunteer and collect equipment which is refurbished in prisons then sent into third world countries.
I became quickly enmeshed into the world of Joni and Friends and God began radically transforming my life. Up until that point, most of my life had been focused on my own dreams and goals. I had enjoyed an active lifestyle, travel, tennis, snowboarding, wakeboarding, skating, anything athletic, I’d try, placing a lot of confidence in my own ability.
Through serving with Joni and Friends, I began to see that my limitations, had come through reliance on my own ability. Once in years past, when facing back surgery, my mother had even said to me, “Maybe you should just be less active.”
“Never,” was my answer, “It’s my gift! It’s the only thing I’ve ever done well in my life, how could I give that up?! It’s like asking a singer to stop singing!”
Now, I have experienced more satisfaction sitting in the water on the back of an adaptive water ski, stabilizing it for a skier with a traumatic brain injury, slipping off as he shoots across the lake, his laughter being heard for miles, than I ever have riding on top of my own ski.
My experiences within Joni and Friends, coming to know my friends with disabilities, seeing into their lives, their hearts, their dreams and hopes, has changed my life beyond what I’d ever imagined.
Sitting with Joni one day, I was able to share with her bits of this journey, saving that book she signed, becoming a therapist, homemaker struggling through life, having her come into my life again in 2004, coming onto staff at camp, throwing a stone beneath the building of the foundation of her new International Disability Center, meeting Nick Vujicic at a WFTW Conference who has become a dear friend, finding a memory box stored in our garage, covered in dust with her name from a brochure from 1976 decoupaged across it, God’s fingerprints have been intentionally placed upon our lives in an undeniable way.
For Joni, it took a diving accident to bring her to the place of surrender. She was forced to lay down the tools of her athletic giftings and it was for a tremendous opportunity, a lifetime of responsibility, and for an organization that would touch the world through one woman’s broken neck.
For me, it took decades to come to this place of full surrender. I don’t know where this path will lead but if it means that through a website which shares God’s message of hope and peace even in and through our difficult circumstances, through all of our “disabilities,” then I pray that someday, this too will be something that could make even the smallest change happen in the hearts and minds of those across our world.
Kara Ferris, Executive Director
Greg Ferris, Husband and Brilliant Website Designer