EVANSTON — The Machine Shop was packed on Wednesday, Oct. 23, for the 21st annual Disability:IN Uinta County Awards Luncheon. The event, planned to take place during National Disability Awareness Month, recognized the accomplishments of mentees and mentors in the past year, emphasized the importance of inclusivity and community support of those with disabilities and provided a memorable afternoon for those in attendance through the words of this year’s keynote speaker, George Dennehy.
This year’s Mentor of the Year Award, presented by Sgt. Brooke Hale with last year’s recipient organization, the Uinta County Sheriff’s Office, was presented to The Lumberyard represented by Travis Hogman. The Above and Beyond Award was presented to Straight Jacket Armory, with an introduction by Mike Cook.
The Spirit Award that recognizes exceptional effort was presented to Bank of the West and accepted by Britt Sloan. Employer of the Year was presented to the management team at Purple Sage Golf Course and Employee of the Year was presented to Joseph Beachell, who has worked at Purple Sage Golf Course for four years. In addition to Beachell, nominees for Employee of the Year included Jennifer Joinor, Christina Thompson, Parker Merritt, Kyle Jenkins and Jared Panzaetanga.
In introducing keynote speaker Dennehy, emcee Mark Madia provided some background information, describing Dennehy as a member of a huge family with 12 siblings from six different nations, the only known person in the world to have mastered the cello with his feet and as someone to be featured on television, in magazines, on a TED talk and with his own CD of original music.
Born without arms in Romania, Dennehy said he was given up for adoption and lived in an orphanage until being adopted at the age of 2. He said the nurses in the orphanage expected him to die, and a doctor had even left a death certificate for them to fill in the date, and he weighed a mere 9 pounds at 20 months of age.
Dennehy explained how his parents rescued him from the Romanian orphanage and also adopted multiple other children with disabilities from several other countries. “My parents weren’t experts in taking care of kids with special needs,” he said. “They just love.”
In explaining his childhood in the United States, Dennehy said he at times felt his parents were mean because they made him learn to do things for himself, even when that was difficult. He also described the challenges involved in simply being different, which included being isolated, excluded or even bullied.
“One thing I can tell you about growing up different is sometimes it feels like I’m the odd man out,” he said.
At that point, Dennehy played his song, “Misfit,” for luncheon attendees, singing while playing guitar with his bare feet. He said the song was based on the idea that, while at times it can feel like a negative, being a misfit can actually be a good thing.
Dennehy continued to describe the difficulties of his childhood, particularly his adolescence. “I was thinking about purpose and what I could do with my life,” he said. Being isolated and alone, he said, “brought me to a place where I thought I was worthless and my dreams weren’t attainable.”
He said, “I firmly believe people are born with a desire to be loved and accepted,” and not feeling the acceptance from his peers resulted in him feeling depressed and even suicidal.
“My parents didn’t know what I was going through because I faked it with them,” he said.
It was at that point, during what he described as the “darkest time” of his life, that someone came into his life who changed everything for him. That person was a mentor.
Dennehy said he didn’t think his mentor realized the impact he had because, “He did it through small things and just being present.” He continued, “There’s something special about an adult figure or mentor who is there to offer encouragement.”
He said his mentor helped him to see, “I don’t have to let my disability define me; I can define it.”
Dennehy said it may take a while for mentors to see the impact they’re having, but he encouraged mentors not to give up. “There’s a shift happening,” he said. “Sometimes it just takes a while to see it.”
“My mentor chose to rescue me from my own emotional orphanage, and that changed everything,” he said.
Throughout his speech, Dennehy used humor as well as music to reach the audience, including opening his remarks with a joke about running into a buffalo that ripped his arms off as soon as he reached Wyoming. He also told a humorous story about people being curious and questioning what happened to his arms, including a little girl who was jokingly told he lost his arms because he didn’t eat his vegetables as a child.
“It used to bother me when people asked questions,” he said, “but people notice people who are different and now I understand people are just curious. Now I just sound like Lady Gaga, telling people I was born this way.”
He continually encouraged both mentors and mentees to strive to be better and reassured them it was OK to be fearful.
“I firmly believe we’re all capable of more,” he said. “It’s OK to be scared but take the leap. The best way to get through your struggle is together.”