Guest Author - Valerie Shoopman
I recently had the extraordinary opportunity to attend and help setup a presentation put on by John O’Leary. What I unexpectedly witnessed was more energy, charisma, spirit, and positive thinking than I have ever seen one single person generate. This guy blew me away in his genuine love for life and people while having lived and excelled through an experience most people never live through.
John’s story goes like this… When he was nine years old, he got the idea that he wanted to see what would happen if he held a flame to a gasoline can in the garage. He knew you weren’t suppose to do something like that, but he was always experimenting and he wanted to experience first hand what might actually happen. He had no idea that gasoline was so flammable and just getting the flame even close to the area would cause a massive explosion.
It was a massive explosion indeed. He was blown about 20 feet back against a wall with his whole body in flames. He was so scared, he forgot the stop, drop and roll training to put out the flame. Unfortunately, he ran through the garage and then through the house all the while on fire and the running only fanning the flames up more.
His parents were not home at the time, only his brother and sisters. His 11-year-old brother heard him screaming and came downstairs to find him on fire. He immediately rolled John up in a carpet and then carried him outside to finish putting out all the flames and call 911. John’s little 7-year-old sister poured cup after cup of water on his face which by this time was completely black and burned.
John showed pictures of what he looked like in the emergency room. It was bad, very, very bad. John was burned on 100% of his body and he was given less than a one percent chance of surviving the first night in the hospital. However, he told his mother he wanted to live, and his mother replied back that he was going to have to work very hard, harder than he ever had before in his life, and then put the matter in god’s hands. That is exactly what John did.
His body swelled up four times its normal size during the first week and then he endured months in the hospital with multiple surgeries, skin grafts, and years of therapy. John ended up losing all ten of his fingers to amputation. The great thing was every picture of John, even the ones with his head and hands all bandaged up, he was smiling. Not just a little smile, but a great big smile…The smile of someone who was genuinely happy to be alive and have another chance to live his life.
John went on through the encouragement of his family and friends and just plain true grit and determination to overcome his challenges, graduate from college and become a successful businessperson, husband, father, professional speaker, and community activist and volunteer. John’s life he has created out of pure tragedy reminds us all that we can achieve anything we put our minds to.
John shares his speeches with schools, organizations and corporations around the country. Each program is tailored specifically to the audience he is speaking to. I can tell you he kept a room full of 72 learning-disabled students, most with ADD, completely engaged and enthralled with his hour-long speech. Usually there is squirming and moving about, but John’s story was so moving, so motivating and close to their hearts that they just wanted to hear more from this terrific man.
In 2004, John’s parents published the book “Overwhelming Odds” that details all the family had to endure and all the love and support they received as a consequence of John’s little experiment. This book and the reception it received was what empowered John to begin professional speaking at public venues. It was because of this book and John’s desire to share his exceptional challenges and successes in life that allowed me to meet the most positive, kind person I have ever had the opportunity to meet. The moment I was personally introduced to him and he grabbed my hand with both of his hands to shake is a moment I’ll never forget in my life. It is a memory that instantly reminds me of what greatness a positive mind can achieve. Thank you from the bottom of my heart John O’Leary.