Spina bifida teen thrives on activity - Catholic Courier

Spina bifida teen thrives on activity

FAIRPORT — Earlier on in life, Gerard Pritchard struggled both literally and figuratively to keep up with the crowd.

“I always wanted to try things that everyone else was doing,” he said. “I always felt like I was missing something, that I was left out.”

Pritchard, whose mobility is limited by spina bifida, said he would often feel sorry for himself. But as he has matured, the 18-year-old doesn’t focus on the negatives nearly as often.

“It’s kind of a waste of time,” he remarked.

Judging from the difference he’s making in his community, Pritchard is using his time exceptionally well.

For example, he organized two blood drives in June 2006 for his Eagle Scout project — one at his parish, Church of the Assumption, and the other at Oak Hill Country Club. He conducted an extensive letter and phone campaign, getting help from his parents, his Boy Scout troop and the parish youth group.

“We did very well. People who run the Assumption drive were blown away. They were expecting 16 whole-blood donors and walked away with 56,” Pritchard said, adding that the staff at Oak Hill anticipated 20 donors and ended up with 40. Three months after the successful drives, Pritchard received his Eagle Scout award. He’s a member of Troop 208, based at Fairport United Methodist Church.

Pritchard’s community involvement stretches into several other areas. He has belonged to Fairport High School’s Humanitarian Club, a group dedicated to community service. He remains highly active in the Spina Bifida Association, speaking at benefit dinners and serving as facilitator with the organization’s youth program. The latter activity involves getting together every two weeks with other young people who have physical disabilities.

“We have dinner, talk. It’s kind of a nice way to get away,” he said.

At Church of the Assumption, Pritchard is a youth-group member, lector, extraordinary minister of holy Communion and retreat staffer.

“He’s very involved. Whenever I need anything, he’s the first one to volunteer,” said Marie Claus, the parish’s youth minister. “I tell him he’s my hero. He has so many challenges, but faces them like a champion. He tries everything. I just love to watch him.”

Pritchard doesn’t limit his displays of faith to church activities. He has helped run a Bible-study group that has met on Friday afternoons at his high school.

“It’s kind of an under-the-radar type club,” he said, explaining that “it’s been hard for us to get in the yearbook, for example” and he has stuck firmly by the group despite occasional questioning by some people about having a Bible activity in a public school.

That’s a pretty full plate for a young man who has dealt since birth with spina bifida, a congenital defect of the spinal cord that occurs when a fetus’ spine fails to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. Due to paralysis stemming from spinal-cord damage, people with spina bifida often require surgeries and other medical procedures.

Pritchard has endured a back surgery, three hip operations and numerous leg surgeries, with his most recent surgery coming four years ago. Though spina bifida is a lifelong condition, he spends considerably less time in a wheelchair than in earlier years, most often getting around on crutches.

He has received considerable support from his family — parents, Larry and Mary, and brother David, 17. Another key reinforcing factor has been his Catholic faith.

“I always know that God is there for me, and how he’s not going anywhere. Praying has been a way to kind of let go of things that might be bothering me,” he said.

Last fall Pritchard received a diocesan Hands of Christ Award, which is presented to high-school seniors who have made notable efforts in their church, school and community. Now he’s excited about reaching adulthood and doesn’t foresee any challenge too overwhelming.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t really have any concerns,” he said.

He will continue his advocacy for people with disabilities, seeking better employment opportunities and construction of more handicapped-accessible facilities. In college he’d like to study psychology in the hopes of perhaps becoming a school psychologist.

“I’m just interested in the way people work, the way they do the things they’re doing,” he said.

Speaking of doing things, Pritchard was looking forward to an activity-packed summer season, starting with his senior ball in early June followed by high-school graduation later that month. Then it was off to New Zealand for the summer — his mother is a native of that country — before beginning studies at Monroe Community College in the fall.

“I can’t wait,” he said, flashing a big grin.

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