On 37 acres of flat, forested land in Sweet Home, Ore., Ron Heagy Jr., 39, travels the property in his motorized wheelchair with the enthusiasm of a kid at camp, stopping frequently to admire small waterfalls and take in the fragrance of fir.
He recalls his own fun-filled days at camp as an able-bodied adolescent—years before a surfing accident during his senior year of high school made him a quadriplegic.
Back then, a friend of his who used a wheelchair had to miss out on the fishing, hiking, and water sports of an Oregon outdoor school because, his counselor explained, “There was simply no way he could get his wheelchair around there.”
Heagy and his buddies thought that was unfair. They protested. “As kids, you want to change the world,” Heagy says, speaking from the light-filled office just outside his home in Albany, Ore. “But years go by, and I expected someone would’ve done something about it by now.”
But no one had. And as Heagy, who criss-crosses the country as a sought-after inspirational speaker, spoke to kids with disabilities, he learned that many wished for—but figured they’d never get—a summer at camp. It became more important than ever to Heagy, who now, literally and figuratively, sees the world from the perspective of his wheelchair.
So Heagy created Camp Attitude, Oregon’s first fully accessible youth camp, so no more children, such as his long-ago friend, would have to miss the fun of summer camp simply because of their physical challenges.
With six cabins that sleep 120, a large crafts and activities center, covered sports pavilion, and more than two miles of paved trails, Camp Attitude, which opened last August, is a dream come true for mobility-challenged children who can now fish, raft, and enjoy the outdoor camp experience once open only to able-bodied kids.
Camp Attitude also is a dream come true for Heagy, whose nonprofit agency, Life is An Attitude Inc., has spent nearly $2.5 million so far to build and fund the camp, which is about 80 percent completed. Still to come are a fully accessible tree house and a 14,000-square-foot multipurpose lodge.
Heagy raises the funds himself, as an inspirational speaker to schools, churches, and corporations. It’s a career—and a life mission—he never expected. “I had a scholarship to play football, and I was one of those macho guys that thought I was indestructible,” he says. “But I didn’t really know myself, like a lot of teenagers.”
‘You give up or you go on’
Heagy, like his friends, spent his senior spring break at a Southern California beach. He’d reluctantly—at his father’s insistence—brought along his younger brother, Mike, but spent most of the time watching girls and trying to learn to surf. When others gave up, Heagy kept returning into the waves, determined to ride.
Several days into the vacation, he paused to take a picture with his brother, the two of them posing body-builder style beside their surfboards. Heagy is grinning, his longish blond hair glistening in the sunshine, his youthful muscles flexed.
Ten minutes later, after enduring teasing for his lack of agility on the waves, Ron dove headfirst into the water. But instead of mounting the swell, his head struck a hidden sandbar and he immediately was paralyzed. Mike, sunbathing nearby, instinctively ran into the waves and dragged his brother’s helpless, 200-pound frame ashore.
“I laid there in the sand and looked him in the face and told him I loved him,” Heagy remembers. “These are things that hit hard, just how fast things disappear … people disappear. There’s things we don’t say, things we need to do. You don’t put it off, ’cause this is the only day we really have.”
Heagy completed nearly a year of intensive physical therapy before accepting that he likely would never regain the use of his body. One victory: He was able to go off the respirator, which many quadriplegics must have to live.
After battling severe depression, Heagy was inspired by the courage of other patients and finally decided, “I had two choices: I could get bitter or better, negative or positive. You give up or you go on.”
So Heagy attended college, as planned. He used a mouth-stick to turn pages and type papers and bummed class notes from friends. He met Christy, his wife, during this time and though they initially were “just friends,” their relationship deepened, and they were married in 1992.
Heagy ultimately earned a master’s degree in social work, but advanced degrees could not persuade potential employers to hire a man paralyzed from the neck down. As Heagy sat in a restaurant with Christy, bemoaning his lack of prospects, his former football coach stopped by the table and insisted he tell his story to the students.
“So I rolled in there on the gym floor and see about 300 or 400 kids on the bleachers and I think, ‘What am I doing here?’” Heagy says, laughing at the memory. “But I spoke, and they appreciated it, and the school paid me 200 bucks. I said, ‘This could be a job.’”
He soon became a popular speaker, earning large fees for his appearances. But the more people he met, the more needs he identified. “I had a dream to be beneficial to my community. I wanted to leave a legacy, do something that really counts in life. I didn’t just want to go make money and have a big bank account,” Heagy says.
So he and Christy founded Life is an Attitude Inc., naming it to reflect the philosophy they live each day: “Attitudes determine outcomes.”
Besides funding Camp Attitude, the organization also helps purchase electric wheelchairs and adaptive computers for kids with various challenges, so they, too, can pursue their dreams and goals.
Jeremy Volbeda, 17, who has a disease that causes brittle bones, credits Heagy not only with getting him a better wheelchair, but with helping him overcome personal fears and improve his outlook.
“He just gave me confidence,” says Volbeda of Albany, Ore. “I just saw all the confidence he had even though he couldn’t even open a door by himself and couldn’t get around by himself without his chair. I realized I didn’t have it as bad as I thought.”
Bob and Donna King’s lives also changed since meeting Heagy. After hearing him speak at a disability conference, the Moreno Valley, Calif., couple approached him to commiserate about the joys and perils of adoption. At the time, Heagy and Christy’s adoption of a baby girl had fallen through but later was restored (their daughter, Roni Christine, is now 2).
“Ron said he would really love to get our family up to the camp he was building,” says Bob King, father of 11 children, some of whom have special needs. “Donna laughed and said, ‘Hey, we would love to go, but our van has been dead the last couple of months.’ He thought for a minute and said, ‘I’ve got a van and I don’t really use it that much; you can have it.’”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Donna King recalls. “I didn’t really understand what he meant. Who gives people a van? Who would do that?” Finally convinced his offer was real, the Kings were delighted to have a late model van with an electric lift that would seat almost their entire family. “Believe me, we get a lot of use out of it,” she says.
One of their first trips was to Camp Attitude in the town of Sweet Home (pop. 8,016). “We’d never been to this kind of a camp, and it was beyond my expectations,” Donna King says. “It was so enjoyable to see our kids enjoying themselves—all our kids. We took picnics to the lake. We’ve never had a vacation like this. It was just awesome.”
Life is An Attitude isn’t just the name of their organization—it’s a way of life in the Heagy household. Even when he’s not before an audience, Heagy is forthright, self-deprecating, and has a sense of humor he uses constantly to tease people and amuse himself.
Heagy, who smiles often, encouraging others to do the same, hands out anecdotes and encouragement to anybody who’ll listen. But he turns serious when speaking about the people he’s helped, or wants to help, particularly children and teenagers.
“I can say with pride that there’s never been a goal in his life that he hasn’t achieved,” Christy says of her husband. “He’s a very driven man, very goal-oriented.”
And though Heagy generates a large income from his speaking engagements, he and his wife drive modest vehicles and live in a small house, choosing to funnel their resources—both time and money—into the organization.
They easily could afford to live a more expensive lifestyle, Christy says, but, “That’s not what’s important to us right now. Getting the camp done, seeing those kids have fun, that’s what it’s all about.”
Each day, as the camp nears further completion, volunteers and paid professionals perform the physical tasks that Ron cannot: hammering nails, pouring asphalt, installing electricity.
But it was his belief that has made this dream a reality. “With vision, dreams, determination, and enthusiasm,” he says, “you can accomplish just about anything.”