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updated: 6/11/2014 11:20 AM

Mentor gives back to help others with disabilities

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By Sherry Manschot

As parents, we try to teach our children to be the best possible version of themselves. We hope to impart the wisdom that comes with successfully navigating the curves that life throws. Hopefully we also share our failures so they can appreciate the learning that comes from failure.

If truly lucky, our children will cross paths with people who can also share their experiences in a similar way. I am grateful for those who have come into the lives of my children and have taken on the role of mentor, whether intentional or otherwise. Each offers something in their own unique way.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a gentleman who caught my attention while he was thanking a group who had made a sizable donation to an organization with whom he works. This upbeat, glass half-full kind of guy briefly touched on the role of mentors in his life.

Chris Rathje, 32 of Downers Grove brings an unbridled optimism to all the roles he takes on including that of athlete, writer, philosopher, coach and now mentor. He attended the University of Illinois and went on to get a master's degree in integrated marketing communication from Northwestern University. Chris also has cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy refers to a group of conditions that affect control of movement and posture. Due to damage to one or more parts of the brain that control movement, a person may have limited muscle movement. Symptoms associated with cerebral palsy range from mild to severe, including forms of paralysis. Chris is a daily wheelchair user and though technically a quadriplegic, has good range of motion with his arms.

While Chris says he is hard pressed to single out one specific mentor in his life, he says that it was during college that he felt the greatest exposure to others in similar circumstances.

"I began to see that there were people in wheelchairs leading successful lives," says Chris. That's when he began taking notice of how others were living their lives.

Eager to start college, Chris took summer classes immediately after high school graduation so that he could get acclimated to living on his own and maneuvering around the campus. That was the beginning of an acute time of self-discovery.

Not all the learning was found in the classroom. Though he admits to not being the best athlete, Chris played wheelchair basketball, met and trained in the same facilities as world-class wheelchair athletes and gave wheelchair rugby and bocce a try. The people he met through college and sports opened up a whole new world.

Along the way he found that, as Sam Walton once said, "you can learn from everybody."

"I learned a lot about sports and competition. But I also learned a lot about myself," says Chris. "I would watch how other people trained, how they went about their business and how they worked with their disability." He learned that he could tackle almost anything. "It might take me longer and I might be be a bit sloppier -- due to the limitations on my hand movements -- but I could do it!"

Later in life and though still learning from others, Chris found himself gradually moving into the role of philosopher and educator. A few years ago he started a blog and self-published a book about his experiences and his outlook on life. "Anything is possible! Life is not about perfection rather it is about growth," proclaims Chris.

The last few years he has been an assistant coach on a wheelchair basketball team made up of mostly high school age boys and girls. "I am trying to give back," says Chris. "I hope in some way I can help enrich their lives."

There is a saying by John C. Crosby, "mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen and a push in the right direction." Moving into the role of coach and mentor, Chris offers all three.

He says that because of his disability he can offer these young people a different perspective. They can "pick his brain" because he knows firsthand what it is like to not have the abilities others take for granted.

He offers an "ear to listen" with an intimate understanding of the struggle involved to find ways to do the same things as everyone else. He understands the mental and emotional toll that living with a disability can take.

When it comes to the "push in the right direction," Chris believes that is where tough love comes in. As a coach, there can be a lot of tough love on the court. But it also takes place off the court. "It's about learning what you can do instead of what you won't do," says Chris. "It's about being better prepared for life."

As with so much these days, social media can make it easier for a mentor to stay connected. Chris stays in touch with his athletes both on and off season. He also sees how his athletes are able to stay connected with other coaches and peers from all over the country there by increasing the opportunity for even more mentor relationships to develop.

Mentoring is coming full circle for Chris. From being that wide-eyed freshman so long ago to embracing the role of mentor and sharing his unique perspective on life with a disability. Sharing, learning, and growing ... it's all about being better prepared for life.

• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at More information about WDSRA can be found at