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The Heart of a City A Webmaster Who Won’t Say No W By Ashley Wahl hen Josh Cranfill has something to say, people listen. He talks slowly, avoiding superfluous words, and when he gives speeches, he always opens with the same line. “I am an individual with a physical disability,” he will say, which might seem like an obvious statement when you see him, but keep listening. “The word individual comes before disability. I am an individual first. The disability is part of who I am, but it is not who I am.” Philosopher is obviously one of his many guises. He also answers to coach, poker shark, blogger and — his friends will tell you — deadpan comedian. Four years ago, he became Webmaster for Greensboro Cerebral Palsy Association Inc., a nonprofit United Way agency located at Gateway Education Center that provides educational, play, and therapeutic services for multidisabled infants and toddlers with severe developmental delays. Although Josh depends on his parents and nurses for the majority of his needs, he was able to design the entire website through a single microswitch controlled by his left thumb, which so happens to be the strongest muscle in his body. The opportunity allows him to give back to the same program that gave him and his family hope despite all odds. Josh was a healthy-looking baby. At birth, he weighed nearly seven pounds. For first-time parents René and Allen Cranfill, life seemed so promising. And then, suddenly, it did not. Days after his first birthday, “we noticed that he stopped rolling over and stopped standing up in our laps,” says René. Two months later, Josh was diagnosed with WerdnigHoffmann disease, the most severe type of spinal muscular atrophy. Doctors told René and Allen that their son would live for another four months. Maybe. Most likely, though, pneumonia would take his life. “Our world turned upside down,” says René. “I quit work. If I had four months to spend with my son, I was going to enjoy every moment with him.” Each day brought more heartache. Then, Josh turned 2. It hadn’t occurred to René and Allen that the doctors might be wrong. A neighbor told René about the Greensboro Cerebral Palsy Association (GCPA), an early intervention program at Gateway Education Center. Josh’s medical requirements were such that he was accepted into the program almost instantly. “It became my security blanket,” says René. “I realized that I was not the first parent to have walked through those doors with a child with special needs. It was OK for me to have a child who was different. We could get through it.” The Art & Soul of Greensboro The Cranfills could stop grieving and start living. Josh received intensive therapy five days a week. He learned to drive an electric wheelchair and started talking — all before his third birthday. “Him being here gave me my time at home to be a mommy. Not a teacher or a therapist,” says René. Executive Director Linda Lyon describes the GCPA Infant/Toddler program as a constant bombardment of positive stimulus. “Many of the children who find their way into the program are among the lowest two percent of surviving children coming out of local neonatal units,” says Lyon. “In many ways, Josh was one of the lucky ones.” This month marks his twenty-ninth birthday. Each day is a new string of obstacles and triumphs. When doctors told him not to go to public school, for instance — “he’ll stay sick,” they said — Josh went anyway. Generally, his peers accepted him. Teachers were another story. “I had something to prove,” says Josh. He made the honor roll through high school, even when his disease killed most of the muscle cells in his dominant hand. In 2007, he earned his bachelor of science in leisure/sport management from Elon University. Notice the gold ring on his right hand. And the sliver of a tattoo left uncovered by his shirtsleeve. When he asked for a sleeve tattoo, which was going to take the artist roughly five hours to complete, Josh promised that he wouldn’t flinch. A sports fanatic, he is also the assistant varsity football coach at Western Alamance High School, the place where he made all those good grades and crossed the stage over a decade ago. He operates his wheelchair by using a microchip that fits over his thumb. You bet the players can hear him. Add his microphone and amplifier and Josh is unstoppable. On game nights, however, his pep talks aren’t usually about football. “I love to win,” says Josh. “I’m a very competitive person. But at the end of the day, there are more important things to life.” Hope, for instance. “For me, life isn’t going to get any easier,” says Josh. “I have to accept that.” René wipes a tear from the corner of her son’s eye. “God made me the way I am because he knew that you and Dad could handle it.” For more information about Greensboro Cerebral Palsy Association Inc., call (336) 375-2575 or go to the web site, OH February 2013 O.Henry 55

February 2013 O.Henry

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