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Hometown Hero: Gabrielle Ford

Fenton resident humbly gives hope, inspiration and new perspective to lives across the nation.

She wanted to overcome the torture of other students teasing her, spit wads being thrown at her and the debilitating disease that weakened her.

Gabrielle ‘Gabe’ Ford refused to use a wheelchair despite her stuggles to walk and wanted to move across the stage for her 1998 graduation on her own two legs.

When she went to do it, however, she fell and many students laughed.

Ford, now 31, said that moment was a pivotal one in her life. She blamed herself and decided to become a hermit - rarely venturing from her room. The one escape she had, dancing, was no longer a possibility. Her rare degenerative neuro-muscular disease had gotten the best of her.

Doctors diagnosed Ford with Friedriech's Ataxia (FA) at age 12. About one in 50,000 people in the United States have FA, a debilitating, life-shortening, degenerative neuro-muscular disorder that weakens the body's muscles,  which even can make speaking difficult.

“My world was turned upside down; I had to quit all of my activities and had to go to a new school due to other issues,” Ford said. “I seriously thought I could hide my disease and felt that if kids made fun of me while I was still walking, they certainly would laugh at me in a wheelchair.”

But the eventual love from a new friend gave her the confidence to overcome many challenges. Today she is a public speaker, addressing bullying issues throughout the country - some say she may even be saving lives.

Her message has reached many as she has has appeared in Animal Planet’s A Pet Story, Cosmopolitan Magazine, The Today Show, Guideposts Magazine, and MDA’s Quest Magazine. She also has an award-winning memoir titled Still Dancing.

And today she is being recognized as the Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day. She is among many people who have made a difference in their communities. 

“I didn't plan on affecting people, it just happened with the life story or hand I was dealt,” Ford said, “One person said, ‘you didn't find your meaning and purpose in life, it found you and you’re a hero to thousands of students bullied in American schools every year.’”

A New friend

Ford said her life changed when she met Izzy.

Her new friend didn't make fun of the way she talked or walked. She was a friend that would stay by her side no matter what. A friend that would never dream of hurting of her.

Rhonda Hillman, Ford's mother, remembers the day she asked if she could get a dog.

“I told her she would have to leave her bedroom and the house in order to take care of a dog,” said Hillman.

Ford and her dog Izzy quickly formed an inseparable bond.

However, one day Izzy started falling and stumbling and was later diagnosed with something all to familiar,  a rare muscle disease similar to Ford’s.

“I was 100 percent responsible for my dog, so I had no choice but to go out since I loved Izzy so much and had to go to the vet frequently,” Ford said. “Izzy was my furry daughter.”

Taking care Izzy gave Ford the courage to speak out for another voiceless group: thousands of bullied school children.

“Izzy by my side made me feel like no one could hurt me. She got all the attention and kids didn’t laugh at me or care that I was in a wheel chair; I felt accepted," Ford said.

Inspiring others

Ford now travels spreading the message that unlike her disease and many others, bullying is a choice. That message has perhaps even saved lives.

An anonymous youth recently posted on Ford's website that she enjoyed Ford's visit to her school.

She said, "Your story basically saved my life. Early this week, I was thinking of ending my life…You showed me that life is what you make it and that it can/will get better. You have given me such a hope and a will to see my bright future. Thank you so much for speaking to us and may you continue spreading your inspiration across the US, across the world. You are a true hero.”

Ford has also had an effect on people that have never seen or met her.

Raymond A. Huml, of Durham, North Carolina, whose daughter suffers from a similar disease, read Ford's book and was instantly amazed and inspired.

“We need heroes like Gabe, who can inspire us so that that we can treat each other better and, regardless of their condition, treat others as we would like to be treated," Huml posted on Ford's website. “As she continues to meet more and more students, people will continue to be positively affected. She is changing lives – like yours and mine.”

One fight ends, another continues

Izzy traveled with Ford for more than seven years, helping spread the anti-bullying message, before she died two year ago.

"She will be buried with me someday,” Ford said.

The epitaph for Izzy reads: To the world you might be one dog, but to one person you might be the world.

Fenton resident and family friend Sheila Smith said Ford is a remarkable young woman and is a beautiful person inside and out.  

“I am saddened to know of things that Gabe has tolerated, but I am thrilled that she has grown to the extent that she is now able to help hundreds and hundreds across our nation," she said. "Her courage to overcome bullying, her attempt to help others with her message and her strength and determination to travel amazes me.”

Ford said that even though she has been in the public eye and has used her wheelchair for years, she did not accept everything associated with her disease until this past year.

One of her current goals is developing ways to generate donations for Splore, a non-profit organization that provides recreation and education programs for people of all abilities, the National Ataxia Foundation (NAF) and Friedriech Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA).

“I recently returned from whitewater rafting on the Colorado River with Splore," Ford said. I would like to raise money to pay for other people to go on trips like this who can’t afford it.”

For every book sold she donates $5 to Splore and FARA, and donated $5 per book sold at the this summer.

Ford and her mom are developing a line of children’s books about adaptive equipment and bullying. Proceeds from these books will go to .

“I want to help people with low incomes pay for their veterinarian bills,” said Ford. “Izzy wouldn’t have lived for so long without the help of the Fenton community.”

"I am just like everyone else, I just can’t walk.”

Ford has been honored with numerous awards and received the Genesee County Peace Maker of the Year Award on Oct. 1.

“Please don’t be afraid to approach me because I am in a wheelchair, I am just like everyone else, I just can’t walk," she said.

Bullying is not a disease but can easily spread like one and Ford continues to try and provide the antidote with her message.

* To learn more, make a donation or purchase Still Dancing, call 810-373-4043 or visit www.gabeandizzy.com.

Chris Hooker October 13, 2011 at 12:02 PM
What a wonder story of Gabe and Izzy this is a real story of life that will touch many hearts forever. Gabe you are a very special person as you share your pain that has turned in the joy of helping others.
debbie owens October 13, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Gabe, I am always encouraged whenever I read about you and all the wonderful things that you do. You are and always will be a special girl to me. I can't wait till you can come down for another visit. I will have your chocolate FUDGE for you. Love to all of you, Debbie Owensf
Peg McNichol October 13, 2011 at 08:24 PM
What a great story. Thanks Gabe, for being resilient despite so many challenges!
Lisa Wick October 13, 2011 at 08:41 PM
Gabe, Renee Hard wrote an amazing story that I plan to pass around with the others I've shared. I've read your book and I have looked at things a whole different way. We'll meet soon, but I feel like I've known you and your mom forever. Thank you for sharing your story. You are changing the world in so many ways! Lisa, Norwalk, OH
Linda October 13, 2011 at 11:56 PM
Gabe, whenever I hear you speak to students about bullying I see how you touch and change their lives. I have read many articles about you over the years but this is one that really speaks to the person you've become!! Linda H.
Brandon October 14, 2011 at 01:21 AM
A very inspiring story, Gabe. My sister has Asberger's Syndrome and is often bullied at her high school because of her social awkwardness relating to it. I'm going to print out your story and show her what a person came become when they develop that fighting spirit you have! Thank you so much!

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