Learning by Doing: Why Not Me?

Living with three prostheses helps author encourage others to pursue dreams

I wake up and give thanks to God for another day. Then, with the help of my caregiver, I put on prosthetics for my left and right arm and my right leg because a birth defect caused me to be born without those three limbs.

While most people see prosthetics as limiting, I learned to see them as freedom and liberation. With prosthetics, I can move and walk and pursue my dreams. Though my journey has taken me through many highs and lows, my faith drives me, my experiences as an immigrant molds me and my prosthetics empower me.

Why not me?

I learned the true meaning of sacrifice in 1978, when I was 4 years old. My parents sent me from my birthplace in Medellin, Colombia, to San Diego, Calif., to live with my aunt and uncle so I could attend school and receive medical care from Shriner’s Hospitals in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

That’s when I received my prosthetics.

Physical therapy was difficult. I distinctly remember when a wheel from my walker got stuck in a crack and it tipped over, causing me to fall and lose two teeth. I was 5 when I stopped using the walker and 7 before my prosthetics began feeling like second nature.

My first experience with cruelty happened at a youth summer camp in Arizona when I was 10. I wore a T-shirt and shorts, and my prosthetics were clearly visible. When the bus doors swung open, I was the first to step off.

The camp director, who was first to greet us, looked me up and down and then looked me square in the eye and blurted, “I wish you weren’t here.”

I was stunned and confused.

He went on to say I would probably require lots of time and attention and ruin everyone’s experience at camp.

Later, like many teenagers, I was self-conscious. But my prosthetics also made me feel robotic, ugly, undesirable. Every time I looked in the mirror, I questioned the person staring back.

Alex Montoya with U.S. Navy ship in background, San Diego.
Alex Montoya touring a U.S. Navy base in San Diego. Photo courtesy Alex Montoya

Yet, with encouragement from my family, my mindset shifted.

My father often called and said, “Show them that we should always be happy and that you were meant to impact people’s lives.” And my sister, Elizabeth, encouraged me to never stop chasing my dreams or let my limitations stop me.

Finally, I realized I had to accept my disability. I had to accept that I looked different and did most things differently than others. I also realized that once I began to love myself, I could freely love and do good things for others like my father told me.

Instead of “Why me?” I began asking “Why not me?”

People would ask how I get through my day. It dawned on me one day that they found inspiration in my approach to life.

Slowly, I began to see the good in my challenges: My disability taught me patience, perseverance and determination, and those traits made me a better person.

Everyone is going to endure adversity. The question is: Will they allow it to make them better or bitter? I choose to be the best I can be.

Navigating adulthood

Adam Kinowski, Alex Montoya bumping chests at San Francisco graduation in cap and gown.
University of San Francisco classmate Adam Kinowski with Alex Montoya for their Master's program graduation in 2008. Photo courtesy Alex Montoya

I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from the University of Notre Dame and a Master’s in sports management from the University of San Francisco despite adversity.

Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind., was far from my home in San Diego and the weather harsher. Plus, in my freshman year, in 1992, much of the campus was still largely inaccessible for people with disabilities.

My family didn’t know if I could survive by myself.

Fortunately, my roommate was helpful and understanding and classmates embraced and assisted me the entire four years.

Finding a job after graduation was also difficult. There was obvious trepidation on the part of potential employers who expressed concern about my prosthetics. After several months, a San Diego public relations firm offered me a paid internship.

In the nearly 20 years of working before I opened my own business, I always had to prove I am capable and should be taken seriously.

Achieving dreams

I missed my parents dearly. And although they didn’t get to see me run for sixth-grade class president or win Prom King and weren’t able to be with me to celebrate my graduation from the University of Notre Dame, I always let them know about my progress and achievements.

More Montoya

The proud business owner of A-MOtivational Communications: Motivational Presentations & Communication Consulting, Alex Montoya was one of the first San Diegans mainstreamed from special-education in 1980, a feat that earned him a spot in the San Diego Unified School District “Hall of Fame” in 2013. An advocate for the disability community, Alex is the Board chair of the Gurmilan Foundation.

Published books

See the Good, 2017

The Finish Line, 2013

Swinging for the Fences: Choosing to Live an Extraordinary Life, 2008

When I was 28, I finally returned home to spend a month in Medellin and did something that was unthinkable before I left: I danced with my mother.

I told her, “This first dance is for you and to say thank you.”

Thirty years after arriving in the U.S., I achieved another dream. My book “Swinging for the Fences” (Tate Publishing), which details my life journey and pursuit of excellence, was published in 2008. This book gave me a sense of pride and greater purpose.

Since then, I have authored three more books. But that dream didn’t come true overnight.

It started around age 10. Even then I knew I wanted to write a book and one day work in the sports industry. I loved writing and knew I had a compelling story to tell. By 17, as I was learning to love myself, I started sharing my life story and my perspective everywhere I could — journals, blogs, essays and newspapers.

While writing, an amazing opportunity came my way.

I got a job as a seasonal usher with the San Diego Padres. That job led to a future in the sports industry. Eventually, I worked my way up to the Community Relations department where I managed the team’s Hispanic outreach efforts. I worked with the Padres in San Diego and Mexico for more than a decade.

Second dream achieved.

Telling stories to make a difference

I began receiving a steady flow of speaking invitations after my first book.

Sharing my life so openly was new to me; but I realized I had the passion for public speaking, so, I made it my full-time job.

By 2016, Ford Fund invited me to speak for its signature program Ford Driving Dreams Tour where I talk to thousands of high school students about my challenges and encourage them to make their academic dreams come true by working hard to graduate on time and pursue higher education.

I learned my story could make a difference or change the course of someone’s life, especially teenagers who struggle with the same insecurities, self-doubt and lack of confidence I had at their age. Words are powerful and I know younger audiences see that my challenges are not that different from the things they are trying to overcome.

When I enter a room, my prosthetics — which may be something they have never seen — are the first things people notice. My physical appearance is a stark reminder to never take little things for granted.

When I speak, I address how someone can function wearing three prosthetics. John, my caregiver, helps me get up, get clean and dressed. He also cleans and cooks for me and is essential to my day — setting things up so I can live independently. I show them how I need help tying my shoes, buttoning my shirt and climbing the monkey bars.

Almost every person with a disability needs some assistance, and John provides crucial help to me.

Often youth say, “Wow! If he can overcome this, I can overcome that.”

Completing the marathon

I know I won’t solve all of life’s problems. It’s a marathon trying to get from one mile to the next, never looking too far ahead but facing the obstacle in front of you. However, I hope I can help the next generation get through the next day and the day after that. If I can do that by giving hope for one day, then it is all worth it.

I want people to know a triple amputee from Medellin, Colombia, came to this country and achieved his dream of earning a degree, working in sports and film and becoming an author and speaker.

If I can do it, so can they. I am living my dreams.

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