On Faith: Offer compassion to those who are different

I met an amazing human being during a visit to Seattle a few years ago.

His name was Bill Porter.

Bill and I were born in the same month but under entirely different circumstances. He was afflicted with cerebral palsy. His mother told him he could accomplish anything if he set his mind to it, and encouraged him to achieve his goals. It was her faith in Bill that gave him faith in his potential. Despite being told by counselors that he was unemployable and should stay at home and collect disability checks for the rest of his life — and after company after company (including Fuller Brush) refused to give him a chance — he wrangled a job with Watkins Products as a door-to-door salesman.

He was given the poorest territory in his town, and everyone expected him to fail. The story of how he ultimately became the most successful salesman in Watkins' history is one of the most inspiring that I have ever heard. His achievements have been chronicled in the 75th anniversary edition of the Reader's Digest, in innumerable magazines and articles, in a best-selling book written by his long-time employee Shelly Brady and received the highest viewer response ever recorded when his story was aired on "20/20."

Shelly Brady gave the talk, with Bill inserting comments as he felt inspired. While communicating with difficulty, he displayed humility and great humor. The story meant a little more to me than to some of the younger members of the audience, because, when I was growing up, the "Watkins Man" was a regular fixture in my home. An inspirational movie was made about Bill's life and we were able to see some clips from it during the presentation. I was constantly wiping away tears as the story progressed, as was most of the audience.

I also remember John and Alex Stuart's young son, "John-John." The family lived just a block away and I would often see John, riding his bicycle in the neighborhood, with John-John sitting in a special seat attached to the back of the bike. John-John was also born with cerebral palsy, but his family gave him the loving attention that has resulted in his earning a bachelor's and master's, as well as full employment as a social services counselor.

I saw John-John and his family at the funeral of his grandfather recently. I am inspired, not only by what this young man has achieved, but by his family's the dedication to help him achieve some lofty goals. He is the author of an inspiring book titled "Imperfect Circles," which I have shared with each of my children.

One of the events he describes is his extreme reticence to enter a "normal" school and the trauma that he endured as he attempted to fit in. It is an engaging story that filled me with tenderness. Yet he endured! Today, he gives motivational messages to audiences, large and small, that help listeners to change and lift up their lives.

At a recent worship service, a speaker commented on our responsibility as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, to extend compassion and render service not only to all those who endure handicaps, but to those who do not seem to be admitted to the "inner circle" of those with whom they associate at school, work or in the community.

A young person came to a Youth Conference and recognized some other youth who attended his same school. Encouraged to mingle, he made the comment that these were people who did not treat him very kindly. This kind of story causes me great pain, because the destruction of a young man or woman's self-image will handicap them for the rest of their lives, in many cases. We have the responsibility to reach out as far as possible to touch any individual who appears to be left out.

As my children were being raised, and we held our Family Home Evenings, we often discussed opening our circle of friends to include those who were obviously being rejected. It is the responsibility of parents to commit their children not only to avoid any activity that will depreciate or demean another, but to go the extra mile and extend the hand of fellowship to those who are standing outside the circle of acceptance.

TOM THORKELSON directs Interfaith Relations for the Orange County Council of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He lives in Newport Beach.

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