Former pupil returns to school with message for children to follow their dreams

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FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – A motivational speaker who has not allowed cerebral palsy and hearing loss to prevent him from following his dreams encouraged students to follow their own dreams when he returned to his former elementary school.

In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Laura Donovan School, Paul Wichansky spoke with pupils on May 1. Wichansky attended the elementary school on Stonehurst Boulevard from 1976-83.

“We are celebrating 50 years of the school serving our students and community,” Principal Jennifer Benbrook said. “Our celebration will take place throughout May and will have a culminating event at the end of the month where we include students, staff, district officials and the Township Committee. It will be a celebration that includes art, science, performances and taking a walk down memory lane. The goal is to honor the past, celebrate the present and embrace the future years here at Laura Donovan.”

Wichansky has hosted presentations and keynote addresses since he was 10 and owns the website JustTheWayYouAre.com

“I am so excited to be here,” he said to the pupils. “I hope you share my excitement.”

As a child, Wichansky initially could not walk on his own and required the assistance of a wheelchair. He later became able to stand and walk with leg braces, which he wore until they were removed when he was a high school sophomore.

Since then, he has been able to stand and walk without additional assistance, which he considers to be one of his biggest achievements.

In encouraging the children to follow their dreams, Wichansky told them about his dream to walk. Now, standing before them, he said his dream had come true.

Wichansky inadvertently demonstrated his progress to his mother, Barbara, when he wound up becoming separated from her at a toy store.

“My mom was so excited I got lost,” he said. “For the first time, I walked away from her.”

Wichansky spoke about forgiveness to the fifth grade pupils. He told them that when he was a freshman at Freehold Township High School, an older student put him in a garbage bin and pushed him around the cafeteria.

Wichansky said he asked the principal, James Hayden, not to punish the student and while the student was suspended for three days, Wichansky said he later learned the punishment would have been more severe had he not asked for leniency.

Years later, Wichansky said, he received a message on Facebook from that individual, apologizing for the incident and asking for forgiveness. The individual asked Wichansky to add him as a friend and Wichansky accepted the invitation.

“People can change,” he said. “When you forgive, you let go of all that anger and hate inside of you. Forgiveness is never a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength.”

To further encourage the pupils to follow their dreams, Wichansky showed them a video that depicted his artwork; a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” he created in ninth grade with an Apple computer; appearing on a CBS news station to deliver a weather report; and skydiving from a plane.

In addition to those activities, Wichansky, in the video, made note of his dream to meet singer Billy Joel, whose songs he mimed. The video revealed Wichansky eventually met Joel and Elton John.

To Wichansky, life itself is a “fantastic dream.”

“You are living a dream every single day if you see it like that,” he said in the video. “Dreams do come true.”

Wichansky also promoted a message of taking “dis” out of “disability,” which creates the word “ability.”

“I couldn’t walk, I fell down a lot, I couldn’t hear, but I had friends who didn’t care that I had a disability,” he told the pupils. “Instead of what they can’t do, think about what people can do.”

He credited his mother, who died in 2018, with helping him speak. Wichansky also encouraged the pupils to appreciate every moment they spend with their family.

Joining Wichansky at the assembly were his former teachers Eileen Mitchell, Carole Fierro, Beverly Pagels, Janet Creech and MaryAnn Seiber. He was also joined by Nicole Herrmann, his friend and former classmate.

Mitchell, who taught geometry to Wichansky in high school, said Wichansky was one of the few students who loved geometry as much as she did.

“You’re a wonderful person and I’m so proud of you,” Mitchell said.

Fierro, who taught Wichansky in fourth grade, described how her pupils were asked to move across the room in different ways. The pupils went in alphabetical order, meaning Wichansky was near the end of the line and in a position where it became more difficult for the children to come up with new ways of walking.

Nevertheless, Fierro said, Wichansky came up with his own original approach by blowing the classroom kisses as he walked across the room.

Pagels, who taught Wichansky in second grade, spoke about Wichansky’s drive and determination, which she credited with helping him become the man he is today. She said Wichansky would not ask for help and if he fell down, he would act as if he had been tripped.

After the assembly, Wichansky received a note from Pagels in which she told him, “You are quite a remarkable young man for not only meeting your challenges head on, but exceeding far beyond in all that you do. I think it’s a wonderful gift of kindness that you care to share your story with the youth of today and for many to bring hope and reassurance of what their tomorrows can be. Always so proud of you.”

Creech, who taught Wichansky in third grade, said he never saw himself as being different from his classmates. As he moved through the hallways, Wichansky made Creech nervous he would fall down, but Wichansky reassured her that like a Weebles toy figure, he would wobble, but not fall.

Seiber, who taught Wichansky in fifth grade, praised Wichansky for his positivity.

“Instead of getting frustrated, he would laugh,” Seiber said. “That’s who he is.”

Herrmann, who has known Wichansky since they were in kindergarten, described how he would give her drawings into which he put great effort. His generosity inspired her to keep those gifts.

She also spoke about how Wichansky did not allow obstacles to get in his way and she encouraged the pupils to follow the same path her friend did.

“If you have a goal or dream, don’t let anyone put you in a box,” Herrmann said.

Maintaining a message of positivity, Wichansky concluded the assembly by asking the pupils to smile and continue smiling.

“I want everybody to smile,” he said. “Don’t let anybody rip that smile off your face.”