CNN Hero shows world what wheelchairs mean to those who lack them

Solana Beach churchgoers had an opportunity to meet a true hero Sunday.

Richard St. Denis, who was honored as a CNN Hero in 2011, spoke to the congregation at North Coast Fellowship about pursuing their life purpose.

“There is nothing better than to serve God and help others,” St. Denis said to the crowd at the Solana Beach church.

In 1976, St. Denis went on a skiing trip that forever changed his life. The then-21-year-old fell while skiing in Lake Tahoe, resulting in a severed spinal cord, a hospital stay, multiple surgeries and the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

“I lost my ability to feel and move my body below my waist,” he said.

After the accident, St. Denis also lost his faith.

At the time, he was a few months away from transitioning out of the U.S. Air Force. He had been accepted to Bible college, planned to become a missionary and was engaged to be married.

“I was not willing to serve a God who would not heal my severed spine,” said St. Denis, who attempted suicide while in the hospital. “I was not willing to serve God unless I was able to walk. I was angry.”

Months later, while St. Denis was still in the hospital, his fiancée was struck by lightning while horseback riding. She and her horse both died.

“That was it,” he said. “I turned my back completely on God.”

St. Denis went on to become an attorney in Colorado. He eventually skied again, as a member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, ranking third in the world in downhill skiing in 1990.

“All that was wonderful on the outside, but I knew something was missing on the inside,” he said.

St. Denis eventually renewed his faith, and in 1997, his life changed again when he was asked to speak in Mexico.

“A pastor friend invited me to go to Mexico with him. He asked if I could take a wheelchair with me,” St. Denis recalled. “Why? Why would I need to take a wheelchair to Mexico? I grew up in the United States. I didn’t realize people with disabilities in other countries don’t have wheelchairs.”

The single wheelchair went to a 17-year-old girl named Leti. She had polio and had never walked a day in her life. Her mother carried her daily.

But St. Denis met other people with disabilities who came to the event by using branches as crutches, being pushed in wheelbarrows, even crawling.

“That day, I realized why I was born,” he said.

Once a year from 1997 until 2004, St. Denis would bring 10 to 15 donated wheelchairs to Mexico to distribute them to people with disabilities. In 2002, he created a nonprofit called World Access Project, and later permanently moved to the country.

Based in Temascalcingo, about three hours northwest of Mexico City, World Access Project donates wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and canes to impoverished people with disabilities throughout Mexico. The nonprofit teaches them how to use these tools and maximize their quality of life.

Last year, World Access Project donated 1,200 wheelchairs to people.

“The world, for many people with disabilities, is the four walls of their house. They can’t get out, they can’t move, they can’t walk,” St. Denis said. “Their world is the four walls of their house. We want to make the entire world accessible for them.”

Solana Beach resident Joel Harris, a member of North Coast Fellowship, connected St. Denis with the church. The pair met at the VA Medical Center in La Jolla, where Harris, an artist, offers bedside therapeutic drawing lessons for patients.

Like he and Harris, St. Denis encouraged the crowd to use their skills and passions to benefit the community.

“God’s got a plan for your life, too,” St. Denis said. “If you haven’t found it, today might be the day. But today is certainly the day to start looking for it.”

For more about World Access Project, visit