For a teenager, I had a surprisingly clear vision for how my life would play out. The year was 1980, and I was a 16-year-old cadet in a Police Explorers program for young people interested in careers in law enforcement. I had big plans. I wanted to become a police officer in my hometown, and maybe someday, go on to the FBI Academy and become an FBI agent.
That boyhood dream would never be realized.
As I got ready for my shift at the police department, two officers were examining a weapon in the locker room. When one of the officers pulled the trigger to test it, the clip was out, but the chamber wasn’t empty. The bullet ricocheted off a locker and severed my spinal cord. And in a single moment, before I had even graduated high school, the career I envisioned was over.
It was hard at first, to imagine what goals and dreams would replace the ones I lost. It was hard even to imagine how I would live like this, confined to a wheelchair. I was suddenly confronted with incredible physical hurdles, not to mention the psychological burden of figuring out what to do with my life. Could I provide for myself and live independently? Simple tasks like getting out of bed in the morning, preparing a meal or writing a note became herculean challenges.
But then something amazing happened. I realized I wasn’t alone. True, no one could take away my physical disability, but I was blessed with a support system that rose to the challenge. My parents, my siblings and the rest of my family – they were all ready to help me adjust to life as a teenaged quadriplegic. Members of my church and community rallied together and offered unending support and friendship. I leaned heavily on my faith then, and now, as a source of strength when I feel weak or tested. Friends, neighbors, and even strangers heard my story and wanted to help in ways large and small. The entire community came together to ease the burden I now carried.
I can’t overstate the impact this outpouring of love and support had on my life. At a time when I ran the risk of feeling isolated and desolate, they lifted me up. They offered help however they could, never asking or expecting anything in return. But they didn’t need to ask. I knew that I had to find a way to repay them for their kindness. I felt an obligation to show that their generosity was not in vain – that I could go on and do something meaningful with my life, and that they were the reason it was possible.
They are the reason it was possible.
In the months and years that followed my accident, my community – my church, my hometown, the family I was born into and the friends who became like family – continued to support me because they felt it was the right thing to do. And in those moments, I learned the meaning of public service. They expected nothing in return, but I felt compelled to repay them for their kindness. I couldn’t protect them with a badge and uniform, but I could protect their interests in a significant way. I could fight for them the way they fought for me. I could believe in them the way they believed in me.
I’ve been in government for 30 years now, first as a delegate to Rhode Island’s Constitutional Convention, then as a State Representative, and then as the Secretary of State, before being elected to the United States Congress in 2000. The sacrifices that others made to get me where I am today are always with me. The kindness, the generosity, the faith – I still feel it, and it is what inspires me every day to continue to serve.
Mine is a different dream from the one I had as a 16-year-old boy. But it is even more meaningful, because this is a dream shared with all those who helped me along the way. I can never truly repay my community for their support, but I will never stop trying.