Crippled CEO Blog #070:
When I was in seventh grade, my electric wheelchair was dying.
Growing up, my chairs would last around five years before they were just breaking down all of the time and too unreliable to keep using.
This chair was on its last legs (or wheels) with a gang of quirks and idiosyncrasies I had to navigate to make it through the day.
Unfortunately, power wheelchairs are expensive. The price tag on the chair I was going to get next was about $12,000. Insurance doesn’t help. There is no government support. We were responsible for the entire thing out of pocket.
And my parents didn’t have anywhere close to that much money to spare.
So, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I took a Folgers coffee can with a hole cut in the lid, taped a label to the front of it that read “Eric Lupton’s Wheelchair Fund,” and parked myself outside of Walgreens. Even at 12 years old, my extroverted, salesman nature was already developing (a trait that has receded over the last decade or so, I think), and I engaged every single person that walked outside of that Walgreens. I didn’t ask them for anything. I just said hello, smiled, and asked them how they were doing. And over and over again, people put money into my can. I did this every day after school, a few hours a day, and all day Saturday and Sunday. After a week, I figured out that I was making about $20 per hour, which was pretty incredible. Even at $20/hour, though, it was going to take me 600 hours to reach my goal. We were only a couple weeks away from Christmas, and we expected the donations to evaporate once the holiday spirit expired. I wasn’t going to make it.
My dad had a mailing list of all of his pool fence customers, and he sent out a letter to each of them — telling my story, explaining how I was trying to raise money for this wheelchair. The response was great, but we were still a long way off from our goal.
I kept doing the Walgreens thing. Day in, day out. People gave change, or $1 — some gave a couple dollars. And some truly generous people would me give a $5 bill.
Then one day, this dude, in a hurry, slides a $10 bill into my can. I’m stunned, and before I can thank him, he’s gone. I kick myself for not responding faster, and the guilt ate at me for the rest of my shift. When my mom came to pick me up, I told her the story, wishing I had been able to tell him how much I appreciated this outlier donation.
My parents took me to Longhorn that night so I could get what is still one of my all-time favorite meals: a loaded baked potato. I used to literally live on just baked potatoes.
While enjoying my conduit for sour cream, bacon, and cheese, I looked up and realized that, at the table next to us, was the guy who had given me the ten dollar bill. This was the guy I hadn’t been able to properly thank. My mom was concerned that it would look like we were using his money to go out to dinner, but I was adamant about going up to talk to him, and she eventually relented and allowed me.
I rode over to his table and reminded him who I was, and how grateful I was for the biggest donation I had received in all of my hours sitting outside of Walgreens. He was very humble about it, but then his wife started telling me that she worked for the Palm Beach Post, and she thought she might be able to get my story into the paper. I told her that would be great, and she took down my information.
While I thought the lady was very nice, I didn’t have high hopes for the publicity. I didn’t know what she did at the paper, and even at 12 years old, I had already figured out that those kinds of promises rarely came to fruition. I kept chugging along outside Walgreens, and checks from the mailing list kept dripping in. At this point, we were hoping that we could get close enough that my parents could bridge the gap. But it still wasn’t looking too great. And my dad was repairing my current chair almost every night, keeping it going so I could make it through the school day.
But then, sure enough, we got a call from the Palm Beach Post. They wanted to do a story on my attempt at fundraising for a new wheelchair. They came out, took pictures, and put it to print. The headline read something like: “All boy with cerebral palsy wants for Christmas is an electric blue power wheelchair”.
The story hit a nerve with people, and the donations started rolling in. We were pretty excited. It was going to be close, but it seemed like we might hit our goal. But then everything changed when we received an anonymous donation, who absolutely refused to identify herself (we just knew she was an elderly lady), for $5,000. I couldn’t believe it. My parents couldn’t believe it. Not only did we have enough for the chair, but we were able to set some aside for future repairs and maintenance. It was unbelievable.
There was no way we could have known when we started this what the path towards success would look like. We just started trying. And that’s usually how these things go. In the words of Conor McGregor, “God loves a trier.” There was definitely some luck that happened here, but luck is what happens when you are doing everything you can to get something done. There have been many times in my life when I have started on a path, not knowing how I could make it successful, or what good could come of it. And just like this, things happen. This is the rationale behind going to every industry conference I’ve ever attended. I never know why I’m going specifically, but I do know that making the effort to go allows for unexpected, spontaneous things to occur. You just need to take the initial steps and do everything in your power. And then use the results of that work to pull yourself up to the next level.
The other lesson here is to allow people the opportunity to step up and be generous. Create the opportunity for generosity. People want to help. Let them. It is a win for everybody involved.
(Wasn’t that touching? Your mom thought so. Speaking of me touching your mom, maybe be like her and get me to text you every Sunday by sending a text to the number 484848 with the word CRIP in the message. Also, share this with somebody who needs to take the first step, even if the rest of the plan isn’t clear.)