- Last Updated on 02 August 2012
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There was a time when just walking across the school stage to claim her high school diploma was as lofty a goal as Gabe Ford dared pursue.
Today, the 32-year-old, who just settled in Viera with her family, speaks to auditoriums packed with students, sometimes visiting 50 schools a year to share her message: bullying hurts.
It’s a message that was born, in part, from that walk across the stage more than a decade ago in her home state of Michigan. Diagnosed with a rare genetic neuromuscular disease in middle school, Ford, who had dreamed of being a ballerina, suffered from slurred speech and balance issues. She wobbled when she walked and fell frequently, making her the subject of laughter and bullying from classmates.
Getting her diploma, Ford lost her balance. Her classmates were unforgiving.
“That’s when depression and isolation overcame (her) and she virtually stayed in the bedroom of our house in Fenton, Mich., for four years,” said Ford’s mother, Rhonda Hillman.
Ford eventually ended up in a wheelchair.
It took a dog, a long-eared coonhound named Isabel (Izzy for short), to break through her isolation and give her confidence. Izzy developed her own health troubles, and Ford took the lead in getting Izzy help. That prompted Ford to want to tell her own story to help others being bullied — to make sure those doing the bullying know how painful it is and those on the receiving end realize they aren’t alone.
“I didn’t want anyone to see me,” Ford recalled. “I didn’t want them to know that now I had to be in a wheelchair. I felt embarrassed and I felt like I had nothing going for me. I felt so alone. I wanted a best friend more than anything else in the world, but I had no friends.”
Ford’s speeches touch students, judging by the hundreds of letters she’s received back. At least two came from students who said they were contemplating suicide until they heard her talk, Hillman said. Media reports from her talks note the deep impression she makes on students.
“I didn’t mind sharing details from my life because it is another way to encourage people to know that anything is possible,” said Ford, who also published an autobiography called “Still Dancing.”
USA Network recently named Ford one of 10 winners for 2012 of its Characters Unite Award, which celebrates extraordinary efforts in combating prejudice and discrimination. She’ll receive a $5,000 grant to support her efforts.
Ford has made her motivational speeches a full-time job. Hillman also left her job to help her daughter. They ask schools or groups to pay a $1,000 speaker’s fee and travel costs. However, they’re also in the process of trying to start a charity with the goal of helping needy schools offset some of those costs, Hillman said.
Ford’s beloved Izzy has since died. But Ford, always the animal lover, still shares her home with two cats and three dogs, including a coonhound cousin of Izzy’s named Dina, who had traveled with her until recently. Ford also lives with her mom, stepfather and two younger sisters.
As soon as the family settles into their Viera home, Ford plans to adopt another dog, which she plans to take with her on speaking engagements. She already has the named picked out: ILO for Izzy Lives On.
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