Handicap This!

(Guest Contributors Mike Berkson and Tim Wambach – They blog at Handicap This!)

Mike Berkson and Tim Wambach met in the summer of 2001.  Tim was hired to help Mike, a 12 year old with cerebral palsy, as his aide in elementary school.  As Mike has virtually no control of movement of his arms or legs, Tim’s job was to help him do things he couldn’t do for himself.  Tim quickly discovered that Mike was different than most kids his age.  It wasn’t because of his wheelchair or cerebral palsy.  Mike possessed a razor-sharp quick-witted sense of humor beyond his years. It bonded the two unlikely friends immediately.

Mike & Tim’s first adventure was a trip to the mall in the north suburbs of Chicago. Tim noticed people staring at Mike as they rolled in and out of stores.  Tim remembered those stares piercing his own soul and wondering what was going through Mike’s head.  “It wasn’t fair,” Tim recalled.  “I wanted to pull these people aside, grab them by the shirt collars, and explain to them that Mike is an incredible kid!”

Later that day Mike was hungry and wanted to eat at Taco Bell.  Not realizing that feeding a crumbling-gooey-oozing concoction to a 12 year-old who can’t use his arms or hands wouldn’t be easy, Tim was very frustrated.  There were tortilla bits on Mike’s stomach, sauce all over his face, lettuce in his lap, and cheese in places where there just shouldn’t be cheese.

Mike sensed Tim’s frustration and quipped, “There’s no need to cry over spilled Taco Bell.”   It was in that moment their worlds shifted.  “I was hooked on this kid,” Tim recalled. Thus began an enduring friendship that soon transformed Wambach from aide into a member of the Berkson family.  “We think of Tim as our lot-older brother,” says David Berkson, Mike’s able-bodied identical twin brother.

Mike, born two minutes after David, was briefly deprived of oxygen and diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects his body movements and coordination.  The doctor warned their parents, Denis and Linda Berkson, that Mike was not expected to talk or lead a normal life.  By the time Mike was three years old, he was talking up a storm and had a thirst for vocabulary.  Linda took Mike back to this same doctor and let Mike drop his speaking skills on him.  The doctor was shocked and happily admitted he enjoyed being proved wrong.

Mike and Tim spent three years working together. “7th grade, 8th grade, and Freshmen year in high school.  Then he  had enough of me or I had enough of him, not quite sure.” Berkson said with a grin.

Tim left Mike in 2004 to pursue other opportunities, one leading him to his dream of becoming a motivational speaker.  Tim was hired by National Financial Educators to deliver their signature program, “The Money Game,” to colleges across the country.  While digging in deep at this job, Wambach felt himself being pulled back to Mike. “I don’t know what it was. I have always wanted the best for Mike and I kept thinking of ways I could still be of assistance to him.  One day while out for a jog, I had an idea.  Really, it was an epiphany and it’s proved to be a game changer!”

Wambach’s game-changing plan was to take Mike and David to Orlando and spend a weekend in Disneyworld.  The Berkson boys would then fly back to Chicago, but Tim would run back as a show of support to increase awareness about cerebral palsy, how Mike lives with his handicap, and to show people what is possible.  The idea date was April 1, 2005.  At this point, Tim didn’t even classify as a runner, but by August 1, 2005 after four months of incredibly intensive training, Tim ran 717 miles from Orlando, Florida to Chicago, Illinois.

“It was the hardest thing I have ever done.  I threw everything I had into the run. Everything. Blood, sweat, and tears – all of it, literally.  I dug deep and realized that I had been living my life at half-speed.  That was exhilarating, but it was also agonizing.  I knew I had to raise my game the rest of my life.”

On the heels of the Orlando-Chicago run, Mike & Tim worked to create the Keep On Keeping On Foundation.  Its early mission was to raise awareness about severe physical handicaps and have fundraisers to support individuals who were living with them.  In a twist of fate after a failed business venture for Tim, Mike and Tim would be reunited again in the summer of 2007.  The Keep On Keeping On Foundation had been awarded official non-profit status and to continue furthering its awareness, Mike and Tim were asked to give speeches at different events.  Their speaking engagements were very successful.  They were making people laugh and think. The audience response was unanimous every time – people wanted more.  “Our message affected every audience.  Whether they were school-age children or adults, they loved us!” Berkson said.

Berkson and Wambach decided they wanted to take their educational speeches and turn them into a theatrical show.  “Our inspiration was John Leguizamo’s stage show, Freak,” Mike added.  In January of 2010, Handicap This! rolled onto the stage and made its debut.

The show’s purpose is to dispel myths and misunderstandings about cerebral palsy and handicaps, and also encourage others to overcome their own obstacles. Both Mike and Tim thoroughly enjoy performing the show for audiences.  It gives Mike, who is often ignored, a platform to show off his chops and exercise the abilities he does have.  The show also satisfies Wambach’s yearning to be a motivational speaker.

“People don’t think he can accomplish a lot,” Wambach says. “Physically he really can’t, but mentally he’s on overdrive.  Always.  He’s got more happening between his ears than anyone I know.  He really enjoys proving people wrong.”

Berkson compares himself to a blind person whose other senses become sharper as a result of the blindness. “My mental state is not better or stronger, but it fires a little more quickly than an average person,” he says.  As he tells the audience, “My body is in a wheelchair; my mind is not.”  That is more than evident in their 80-minute show.

“On stage, Mike is triumphant,” Tim beams, “The audience gets to see Mike as MIKE, and they know immediately he’s intelligent and funny.”  Mike chimes in, “Yeah, you don’t need to pull anyone’s shirt collar.”

Berkson insists he can mine humor from the most painful situations of which he has plenty of material.  Having endured 12 surgeries, including having two 18-inch rods implanted in his spine so his organs won’t be crushed, Mike uses humor to face adversity.

They’ve dubbed themselves “two men and a wheelchair,” but their show is really about the journey of a handicapped kid with enormous smarts who grows up and the friend with enormous heart who has helped him navigate along the way.  These are happy times to savor. The story of their 10-year friendship also has a raw side.

“Tim can only do so much to make my life easier.  I’ve come to terms with the big things that I’ll never be able to do, but I have yet to come to terms with the daily everyday things I can’t do,” Mike says. “When I wake up in the morning, I know it’s going to be somewhat difficult.  I know I’m going to get from point A to point B, but what unforeseen obstacles are going to arise?”

Wambach takes a lesson from his young friend, “It’s true.  I can only do so much to help, but as Mike puts it, ‘it’s not about what I can’t do.  It’s focusing on what I can do.'”

Berkson and Wambach are no strangers to standing ovations. “We have done the show 15 times and received 16 standing ovations.  You do the math,” Berkson says.  They’ve had public performances, recently rolling onto the stage at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, Illinois for three performances.  They’ve also performed for middle school, high school, and college audiences.  Their niche markets are the colleges and other handicap awareness organizations.  They are working to find a sponsor for a national college tour.

One of their college fans includes Carl Ratner, an associate professor of voice at Western Michigan University, who attended a show.  “It broke down walls,” he says. “It wasn’t so much the intellectual content. It was the emotional connection with Mike and Tim. I think you go through life and you see people and you just think that perhaps it’s better to stay in my little group. This show made it clear how we’re all losing by not connecting with all different kinds of people.”

Handicap This! continues to work in partnership with the Keep On Keeping On Foundation.  Wambach has also written a short book chronicling their experiences, How We Roll, with all sales going directly to the foundation.

Both men know they’ll move on one day and pursue other things independently of one another, but they also know they will always be in each other’s lives.  “I don’t see any end to our friendship,'” Wambach says. “We’ll be forever linked.  We’ve kind of accepted that this is our wave and we’re going to ride it to wherever it takes us as long as we can.”

So far, their wave has taken them to many places.  Hopefully Handicap This! will roll into a town near you!

For more information about Mike, Tim, Handicap This! or the Keep On Keeping On Foundation, please visit their websites:  www.handicapthis.com; www.keeponkeepingon.org.

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