"A Story of Friendship" changes lives thousands of miles from Boise

Posted at 7:40 PM, Oct 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-08 20:39:36-04

When two Treasure Valley friends conquered the Camino Trail in Northern Spain, a documentary followed -- as did a successful children's book.

"The Push: A Story of Friendship," tells the heartwarming story about two young boys named John and Marcus. One of the boys lives in a wheelchair, and the other is not -- much like the relationship between the two men who conquered that trail in Spain, when one of the friends pushed the other's wheelchair across the trail. 

One of the men who hiked that trail, Patrick Gray, wrote "The Push." Gray says he was inspired by his relationship with his friend, Justin Skeesuck, who is in a wheelchair.

"I couldn't get this idea out of my head," Gray said. "A boy who's able-bodied and a boy in a wheelchair: very similar to Justin and my relationship."

The book ended up in the African nation of Malawi, where it helped inspire a young disabled girl. Skeesuck, a co-illustrator of the book, says being part of a story that helped someone else is humbling.

"For me, it's super humbling," Skeesuck said. "Now it's in the hands of pre-school kids in Africa. It's mind-blowing."

Erin Hempen, the founder of a non-profit called "With Change in Mind," built a school for pre-school and kindergarten age children in the African village. She bought the book after watching the documentary about Gray and Skeesuck's journey in Spain called "I'll Push You." One girl caught Hempen's eyes -- a young girl with cerebral palsy named Ruthie.

"She wasn't one who played with other kids before, because she does have special needs," Hempen said. "There are some stigmas around special needs children in communities like that."

Ruthie is just a few years older than the other kids. She had never been to school and, as Hempen was told by community members, was cast out as someone who was the result of a “curse” laid on her family. Hempen says the book “was a beautiful and poignant example for Ruthie and her community to see that was not alone in her experience.”

"When the story first got read to the class, I was watching that happen," Hempen said. "I saw Ruthie light up hearing about another person who had special needs, but was just as smart as his friend and just as capable as his friend."

Ruthie has gone from sitting on the roadside to now having crutches that help her walk. She is included in all the games and has become a part of the classroom.

"People are smiling at her as she walks to school with her backpack. People say ‘Hello!’ to her,” Hempen stated.

At the end of their book, Patrick and Justin included a quote from Mother Teresa: "Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier." It's almost as if that quote was directed toward a young girl in a faraway land.

"Ruthie is not only going to help other children in this village, but she has already helped adults in the village learn to see children like her in a different way," Hempen said.

Their story, Ruthie's story -- a good story we hope will always have a happy ending to those who read it.

"She is seen as no longer ‘cursed,’" Gray said. "It's crazy to be just a little part of that story."