What do you call a man with no arms? If you ask Chet McDoniel’s family and friends the answer would be that you call such a person a normal, ordinary man. He drives a car, operates his own business, tends to his young daughter, Hannah, pets his dog - all ordinary daily activities. Only when others use their hands, Chet uses his feet. For those of us who do not know him well but whose lives Chet has touched with his story, you’d call him nothing short of extraordinary.
When Chet was born in 1980, they didn’t do sonograms as part of general prenatal care. If it weren’t for a very skilled obstetrician, neither Chet nor his mother would have lived through his birth. Yet, live they did! When his parents met Chet, their third child, they were greeted with the shock of a lifetime. Unlike their other two “normal” children, this baby had no arms and had legs that were shorter than usual (as it turned out one of his legs had a small femur while the other had none). While they did not know what caused Chet’s issues, doctors came up with a whole list of “challenges” that Chet would face: things like swallowing food, and they were sure he would never walk. These early days were the lowest of low points for Chet’s family, and his parents made a conscious decision not to dwell there. So they incorporated Chet into a loving family and raised him as normally as possible. From the time he was an infant, it was pressed upon Chet that he was no different than anyone else and that he could achieve his dreams the way anybody else could. To this day, he credits his folks for his daily successes in life.
As a young child, Chet worked with physical and occupational therapists. However, his parents like to joke that it was more for their own reassurances than it was for Chet! As the therapists told them, Chet would use his feet in ways that other children might use their hands because his brain wouldn’t know any different. Feet were what he had to work with, and he worked them well. Chet naturally mimicked other children, only he played with toys with his feet the way they did with their hands. He was quick and curious. However, at three years old, he still was not walking and it was assumed he never would—until the day he did. “At three years old I took my first step but my parents had already given up. I was over at my adopted grandmother’s house and I took a few steps. She frantically grabbed the phone and called my parents. They ran over and she was trying to describe to them what I did. I was a mouthy three-year-old and grew impatient. Finally, I just said ‘OH good grief, I did this.’ Then, I walked into my mother’s arms. They just freaked out!” The lesson was a good one. From that day on, Chet’s parents knew never to assume anything. Even when it made them cringe, they never once told him he couldn’t do something. When Chet was nine, a local news program came to do a story on him. Chet’s mother told the crew that she wanted to be overprotective, but she knew it was not good for him so instead she let him “do” but wouldn’t stand there and watch.
Until kids in elementary school began pointing out differences, Chet truly did not realize that anything was all that different about him. But even in elementary school he did just fine. He was well accepted among his friends at school and at church. His siblings were also as supportive as possible. His sister, Jennifer, is seven years old than Chet and took him everywhere, keeping him involved in her life without any fear or shame. His brother is 11 years older than Chet, so they were not together much in the early years, although they are close as adults. “Jennifer said it was one of the best tests of boyfriends in college. She’d say, ‘I’ve got a brother with no arms.’ And if they were shocked or displeased, it told her a lot about them.”
Junior high, however, was a different matter for Chet. In junior high, the time when hormones run rampant and physical attraction is everything, Chet dealt with the most cruelty. But, as he is quick to point out, it is a pretty horrible time for everyone! “Everyone’s life changes. I had to deal with the fact that not everyone would like me, not everyone would be nice. I developed a more likable personality—if I could win people over with humor they would like me. I also had to come to grips with where God was in this. Either He caused this, or we live in a fallen world and bad things happen and we can’t explain it.” At that point, Chet solidified his belief that God loves us and doesn’t cause bad things to happen. And, as he says, “that’s all I really need to know.”
Looking back, junior high would also prove to be one of the most important time periods in Chet’s life. It was when he met his wife, Joni. “In junior high when boys start liking girls, etc. I was kind of left out of that. With that many hormones raging, you’re not caring about the personality! I kind of built a shell around me that this might be something in life I might not have. I might not have a wife. I told people I was okay with that but deep down inside I knew I wasn’t.” It was around that time when Joni and her family moved to Chet’s church. “We sort of ‘dated’ in junior high for a few months and then broke up in such a bad way we didn’t talk for a few years.” After reconciling as friends while in college, Joni and Chet saw a lot of each other post-college when they both moved home. “We were basically the only people single at our age at our church. She got into a car accident and totaled her car. So, I said I would chauffer her to church, the mall, etc. Over the course of a year, without having the ‘love interest’ of a relationship, just being the best of friends, we got to know each other better than a lot of relationships do.”
“You can choose to be a grump or you can choose to be happy every morning. ‘Overcoming’ happens every day. But it’s easier every day of my life, because yesterday I overcame and the day before I overcame.”
In 2004, Chet led a tour of people in wheelchairs around Walt Disney World, his absolute favorite place to visit. For eight or nine days, he ached inside, despite being in his happiest place on Earth. He wanted to be with Joni. When he finally got home, they went out for dinner. “I told her, ‘I want to marry you. ‘She grinned and said ‘I’m glad because I want to marry you!’ That was in about May 2004 and in March 2005 we were married.” Before they married, Chet shared his concerns with his future bride, telling her that there are some things in this life he cannot do, things that she’ll have to help him with. Things that may be unpleasant and don’t happen in other marriages. “She said that ‘Do you think that if I hadn’t already thought of that, and been OK with it, that I would have even said yes to dating you?’ I never once thought that I would find somebody who would be so totally accepting.”
After high school, Chet went on to college at the University of North Texas, earning a degree in radio, television, and film production. All the while, he lived life as a normally as anybody else. So much so, that people around him forgot about his differences. “A friend one time was riding in my car and I pulled into a handicapped spot and she almost accosted me. She had forgotten that I was handicapped!”
Graduating from college, Chet wanted to be a radio disc jockey—until he learned that it takes years and years of minimum wage to get a good job in this field. So, instead he got involved with a travel agency. Then, he broke away and started his own travel company specializing in Disney vacations (http://www.offtoneverland.com/). Life was good. Chet had his own business, led church worships, was married to his true love … he was content. Then, his father decided to write a book and everything changed.
A minister all of his professional life, Jim McDoniel thought his family’s story could help others. “I had no intention of speaking, or writing a book until around 2005, when my dad decided he wanted to write a book about me to help others with handicapped children and adversities.” Chet was fine with the idea, but he still didn’t think many would be interested in the story. “My mom had a very hard time after my birth. Trying to help her, one day my dad said ‘Chet may not have all he needs for this world, but he has all he needs for heaven.’ That became the title of the book: All He Needs for Heaven.” Initially, Jim had trouble getting the book published and sold. Working together, the father-son duo came up with an idea that might help. “We decided to let some churches in the area know the book was out. I attend a 4,000-member congregation church. I asked the minister if we could take a Wednesday night and tell our story at the church, a night when there are usually between 1500-1800 people. We sold a lot of books that night! That was January 2007, the one night that started it all. That night, I found myself having the time of my life being able to tell my story. I came home and told my wife—this is who I am, because my body is like this I have an awesome responsibility to use it to glorify God.”
Chet and his father began speaking together regularly. The two had always enjoyed a close bond and talked almost daily on the telephone. And, now they shared the stage. Since the beginning of 2007, they have had upwards of 30-40 speaking engagements, talking to church groups, corporate groups like American Airlines, schools, and any audience that wants to hear from them. Their message has universal appeal. Essentially, they share with audience members this one idea: if Chet can live a happy life with no arms, you have no excuse to not live happily! “People look and see something different, what I see is my life. This is what works for me. I had my moments where things were rough and I didn’t understand. It’s just one of those things where there are daily challenges that come out of this; I have to face them everyday. It is a conscious choice that happens every morning. You can choose to be a grump or you can choose to be happy every morning. ‘Overcoming’ happens every day. But it’s easier every day of my life, because yesterday I overcame and the day before I overcame. There are days when I let myself get unhappy because I couldn’t do something. But those days are so quickly erased when I get up the next day and am happy.”
The irony in Chet’s newfound line of work is that until he became an inspirational speaker, he really didn’t see why he would be at all inspiring! “All throughout my life my parents would say, ‘You’re no different, you’re no different, you’re no different.’ One of the things I had to reconcile with was to get up in front of a room and say ‘I have no arms and I can be happy, so you can be happy,’ when all I’d ever been taught is that I can be happy—the no arms thing was never given attention. What I am starting to understand is that it doesn’t matter if I feel that way; it’s that other people feel that way. All I’m saying is, you can do that too. It’s the only way to live. I had to take a step back and say, ‘Ok I can be inspirational.’”
Chet and Jim took the original book and expanded and republished it. Then, Chet wrote his own book, going through the ways that he’s learned to be happy (I’m Not Broken: You Don’t Need Arms to Be Happy). These days, Chet continues teaching others around him that they, too, can be happy! “It’s all up to you. You have to make the choice of a happy life.” His message for all is: Go out and have fun!
Information about Chet and Jim McDoniel and their books and other products are online at: All He Needs Ministries (http://allheneedsforheaven.com/) Chet’s speaking site and blog can be found here (http://chetmcdoniel.com)
Thank you Chet, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Tamar Burris Story of My Life®