The Disability Awareness & Character Development Lecture Series

JustTheWayYouAre.com
Forecast: Sunshine, Home News Tribune in focus

written by Paul Franklin, 9 September 2001
Copyright ©2001, Home News Tribune, a Gannett newspaper
In Focus Cover Story, Section G


Paul Stuart Wichansky is the poster boy of optimism.

His glass of iced tea is half full, a day of cloudy skies is a chance to enjoy summer's shade. And his mild form of ataxic cerebral palsy and an associated bilateral hearing impairment is merely a unique challenge.

Paul Wichansky, Motivational SpeakerHe has a bachelor's degree from Rutgers University, a Master's in meteorology, and is working towards his Ph.D. He is a motivational speaker for high school and grade school students at many New Jersey schools.

And the kid never stops smiling.

Well, he's no kid. Wichansky is 30. But at 5'3", 104 pounds, he's never mistaken for a Rutgers football player.

Not that he isn't an athlete. Heck, when he was 10, he registered a shutout in goal-playing soccer.

"Not allowing the ball to get into the net was nothing," he says. "But standing up for two hours by myself was an achievement. I was really proud of that."

He is also proud of creating his web site, www.justthewayyouare.com, of helping to break down stereotypes, and of his ongoing research on New Jersey weather and the effects of land cover change.

He explains: "My doctoral research evaluates the effects of historical land cover changes upon New Jersey's weather and climate. I have digitized maps of the land cover from the 1880s era and also of present-day land cover from satellites, and plan to feed each of these datasets into a computer model that simulates the atmosphere. I want to see what changes in weather have occurred when the land cover has been changed through urbanization and agricultural practices."

Land cover changeWichansky received a grant from the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station while being named the 2001 NJAES Graduate Scholar Recipient -- one of two Rutgers grad students to have earned that distinction this year.

Yet his greatest distinction cannot be measured.

"I believe that personal wealth is dictated by how many quality friendships you have, rather than by how much money you have in the bank. That's why I like to say that I may be the richest guy in the world."

"Sometimes," he adds, "your own challenges may very well be among the best gifts that you have received in life. The only real handicaps we have are those we create for ourselves."

He credits his family for his physical and mental growth, saying his mother passed on her personality and a strong sense of pride. His father, he says, taught him perseverance and about competition. His sister provides the enlightening guidance he needs to develop a common-sense approach and has many close friends who share her positive, spirited outlook.

And so he has come to know that when he ponders the question, "Why me?" is of being selfish.

"I don't have time to think of self-pity or sorrow," he says. "I'm just out there."

That hasn't always been the case.

Essentially introverted in his youth, Wichansky began to come out of his shell when he met a couple of lifeguards down the Jersey Shore about five years ago. Ian and Alex King, brothers, befriended him. Having grown up in Freehold, Wichansky spent a lot of time on the beach. It wasn't until he met the King brothers that he began to socialize in the true meaning of the word.

"I have never been asked to parties, I had never really been asked to socialize," he says. "These guys made me feel welcomed, and my friendship was returned. That was the turning point."

Mercury TopazA sense of humor has been a boost. He talks about his car, a white 1992 Mercury Topaz, that has the engine of a lawn mower. "My car can pass anything on the road, as long as it's going in the other direction."

While Wichansky would not mind a career in talking about the weather -- "it's the only career where you can be wrong and still keep your job," he cracks -- his ideal job would be getting paid to deliver programs to kids and adults.

I could have an effect on the meteorology field, but I could have a bigger impact upon attitudes," he says. "Once you have the kids, you have the families. And then you have their own children, and the positive attitudes are then passed on to future generations. I like to help others."

He received an e-mail recently from a student in the early stages of Bell's palsy. It was a request for tips on accepting the disease, which causes partial facial paralysis.

"I wrote back and said that, when God closes one door, He always opens another, and that all people are negative and depressed when something like this happens. But other people accept it and walk through the door and accept the challenges. I didn't know what else to say," he says. "I know that when I am alone, I can get really depressed. I love to be with people."

That is why the classroom is his favorite place to be. He is with people, he is speaking from his heart, he is helping others.

He especially enjoys discussing the importance of disability awareness, not to mention what positive thinking and commitment can do.

There was one class where a student wanted to know what the most difficult part of his disability had been over the years. Most might guess walking. Or talking. Or standing.

The answer was falling.

"I actually had to learn to fall," he said, noting that he hadn't really walked until he was nearly eight years old. He often would fall when he was trying to learn to walk, so he had to learn how to distribute his weight so as not to injure himself when he hit the ground.

For those like Paul Stuart Wichansky, hitting the ground was expected. Getting back up is what makes him special.



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