Courageously Different: Written by Deisy Mendoza
There are so many stories in this world but there are not many stories that make you stop and question the way we see life. Perspective is everything. When we take the time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture we can finally start to see things more clearly. When circumstances arise we often panic and think of everything we have lost or could lose, but what if we thought otherwise. What if instead of seeing what we have lost we started to see what we have gained.
When I set out to take the three-hour trip to Missouri to meet with Haven Shepherd I couldn’t help but feel inspired by how she sees life. Every challenge she has ever faced was never met as a challenge but something she needed to work through or accomplish. She sets her sights on her goals and makes them a reality. Nothing keeps her from seeking out those dreams because she doesn’t see them as impossible. With my digital and film camera in tow, which I borrowed from a very generous and good friend in the photography community, I couldn’t help but feel anxiously excited as the creative juices started to flow for her editorial.
When you meet Haven, you are greeted with a bright smile and contagious laughter. Walking confidently, she greeted me and thanked me for making the drive. Never would you see Haven as a double amputee because she sees herself as someone with no limitations. What would it be like if we all viewed our current situations as Haven sees them. Would we limit ourselves less? Would we dare to live more fearlessly knowing that our only limitations are the ones we place on ourselves?
Haven was born in Vietnam. Her mother had recently separated from her husband and pursued a new relationship with her father. Divorce in Vietnam is illegal. Couples often feel hopeless and at times see suicide as their only option due to the laws of the country.
“At fourteen months old, my parents made the decision to commit a murder/suicide by strapping bombs onto themselves. The theory is maybe they were holding me, and it blew me out away from them leaving my legs so severely damaged that they had to amputate both below the knee. We were told the reason for the suicide was they were in an affair and didn’t feel they could ever be together, but we have also been told that they were in extreme poverty and hopelessness about their situation. We may not ever know the full and complete story.”
Haven’s adopted parents Rob and Shelly Shepherd heard about Haven’s story and traveled to the Vietnam. Adoption had been on their hearts and Haven was soon to become part of the Shepherd Family.
“My adoptive parents came to Vietnam four months after the explosion to take me home. I was 20 months old. I became the youngest of seven. Two boys and five girls. I am extremely close to my family, they are everything to me. I can’t imagine fitting in anywhere better. They support me in everything I do and keep me grounded.”
Haven’s parents have been nothing but supportive by always encouraging her to live boldly. Not long after, at the age of nine, she joined The Challenged Athletes Foundation which opened a whole new world by introducing her to adaptive sports and the community that it involves. She found an interest in competitive swimming, which quickly turned into a passion. Just a regular teenager like everyone else Haven loves training, competing, and often day dreams while she is in the quietness of the water as she replays episodes of The Office in her head.
“There are two main reasons I love swimming. The first is the fact that I don’t have to wear prosthetics in the water so I feel completely free. The other thing I love is the alone time. When I’ve spent a hectic day with lots of people and two hours of training time, the quietness in the water, is something that brings me peace. Sometimes I think of serious things and sometimes I replay episodes of the office in my head but either way it’s my time.”
Haven has found herself speaking to the public about her life and offering encouragement to those who are in similar situations. She often speaks at school assemblies through a program called “It’s Cool to be Different”. Her story and life has impacted many children and people that need to hear that being different is a good thing and that they have strengths and talents that they too can offer.
“My mom and I do a school assembly called it’s “Cool to be different”. After it was over and we were loading up the car a teacher came running out of the school waving her hand trying to catch us before we left. She had tears rolling down her cheeks and said she had just had the most amazing thing happen in her class room. A very shy, self-conscious young fourth grader who had a deformed hand came back to the classroom. He stood up and said, “Attention everyone, I’ve had a moment.” He took his different hand out of his pocket where he always kept it hidden and said, “It’s cool to be different!!” Hopefully something I had to say about how I live my life could change his perspective of himself in a positive way.”
Haven, is currently training for the 2020 Paralympics. I think it is safe to say that there is no doubt that she has made an incredible impact in the lives of her local community and the world. When we take a step back and view our circumstances as more than trials that bring us down we start creating an environment that dares to courageously see our losses as something we gave gained instead of what we have lost.
“I believe perspective is everything. When I struggle with my attitude or anything else my mom reminds me to be grateful for everything I have been given. Focusing on what I do have instead of what I don’t have helps me have a positive perspective. I don’t think you can live a fearless life, but you can live a courageous one. I have struggled with fear this last year. Fear of failure and disappointing all the people who have supported me has been a real enemy as I’ve gotten older. It felt easier when I was little and expectations were small but now that I’m 15 I feel the pressure. It has made me want to pull back and not share my story on a public level. My mom has helped me find different teachers and podcasts that are teaching me how to not let fear keep me from my destiny. Fear is always there but the trick is not allowing it to determine what you do each day.” – Haven Shepherd
Story Contributor: Haven Shepherd
Article Writer: Deisy Mendoza
Photography by Water and Grace