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Tony Bonofiglo: ‘We Are All Different in Some Way’

Well, kids, I hate to break it to you, but while some of you sigh your way through another summer, wondering how to occupy your time and who’s going to be the next person to help you up, don’t be surprised if a guy like Tony Bonofiglo breezes by you in a burst of glory.

And doing it in a wheelchair.

I don’t mean to paint you all with the same brush, but if you’re a moaner and a groaner and tend to count what you don’t have rather than embrace and utilize what you already possess, a little Tony might go a long way toward re-setting your compass.

While too many of us stand still, Tony’s racing toward a finish line despite being born with cerebral palsy that was serious enough to use a wheelchair and silence his natural voice.

The wheelchair allows him to stand when making presentations
The wheelchair allows him to stand when making presentations

But that hasn’t stopped him from soaring in ways that belie his physical limitations. Mark my words: before long, you’ll see Tony Bonofiglo starring in one of those wildly popular TED talks, and I suspect that will be just the beginning.

In fact, he’s already on a speaker’s circuit of sorts, and it was my privilege to hear him, as he held spellbound a classroom full of fellow students at Forest Hills Northern High School not long ago.

Seated in his power wheelchair and dressed casually in a sky-blue T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, he rolled forward to address more than two dozen students with the use of a “Dynavox” machine that’s been his voice since age 4.

Through the miracle of technology that can capture what Tony types and then relay it in spoken word, Tony began his talk by stating, “Hi everyone, I’m Tony,” and in the next virtual breath, acknowledging that “My brain doesn’t control my body very well.”

He went on to provide a little history, recounting how as a child, he was urged by some so-called experts to attend a “special” school rather than attempting inclusion within a regular classroom.

He got his wish, along with all the challenges that come with bucking the system. “At first,” he remembers, “kids stared at me. I was shy, too,” and he admitted that things were “not good the first few days.”

But Tony persisted, confident he could convince his classmates that he had gifts as well as limitations. “Once we got to know each other,” he went on, “I was a kid, just like everyone else.”

“Once in a while,” he continued, “a kid would say something mean, but I never let it bother me.”

Instead, he learned to collaborate with those who disregarded his differences, noting that “Heck, we are all different in some way,” and went on to highlight how some people can’t see, some live with autism, and let’s not forget how some are short, tall, thin, stout, freckled, left-handed and so on.

And then he said something that I might never forget: “No one ever wants to be excluded.”

If you can SCUBA, then SCUBA

In that moment, Tony underscored a basic human need, perhaps the basic human need. To belong.

“Next time you see someone who’s different,” said Tony, whether it’s in a classroom or on a bus, “approach them and get to know them.”

You’ll be better for it, he said. And so will the person to whom you reached out.

It’s a fail-safe formula, really, for those of us feeling sorry for ourselves. Because if we fill our voids with being deliberate about how we might use our gifts for good, our gifts for others, it re-focuses our pain or loneliness.

But it’s not just me who believes Tony’s on the right track with the correct tonic. Those closest to him have come to understand that he’s a force, and despite the lack of legs that walk and his own vocals, is as strong an advocate as you’re apt to ever discover.

His own mother, Dianne, calls him a “rock star.” And let’s face it, moms are supposed to say that about their kids, right? But she has personal knowledge, sharing how from the very start, her son was not going to be denied life’s riches.

To wit: He’s an able SCUBA diver, horseback rider, triathlete, kayaker, sailor and bocce ball player. Of course, he makes use of adaptive aids to help make it happen, but the lesson here is that he refuses to sit still. And who wouldn’t excuse him if he didn’t?

Seated rigs allow Tony to hit the slopes

But no, Tony Bonofiglo would rather wrestle with the hurricane’s eye than stand back and be denied. And for that reason, he’s already been awarded special citations, including a coveted “Yes I Can! Student Award for Self Advocacy” from the prestigious Michigan Council for Exceptional Children,” which knows a thing or two about students with limitations.

Michelle Gallery, a physical therapist with the Kent ISD, describes Tony as someone who “embodies what it means to be a role model to all individuals, no matter the age and no matter their disability.”

Kent ISD colleague Kindy Segovia, assistive technology supervisor, calls Tony “unique and inspiring,” adding that “despite barriers, he’s an amazing example of perseverance and positive attitude.”

John Dolce, meanwhile, from his post as assistant principal at Forest Hills Northern, where Tony will be a senior this fall, simply states that Tony “brings out the best in all human beings.”

So there you have it — sterling testimonials on behalf of a young man who, barring medical miracles, may never walk or speak under his own power. And yet, someday, hopes to carve out a career as a motivational speaker. And perhaps most importantly, refuses to be defined by physical barriers.

Much less the onset of summer vacation.

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary. Read Tom's full bio or email Tom.


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