“What I love about leading is you get to do something good and you get to teach people lessons about life,” says Elijah Blasingame, 13.
Elijah knows a thing or two about leadership. He’s a patrol leader for his Boy Scout troop and he’s poised to become an Eagle Scout this summer. “It goes Second Class, First Class, Star, Life and Eagle. I’m almost done with Life,” he explains.
"Woah, I'm Flexible!"
Essential leadership qualities, according to Elijah, include good morals and patience. Elijah’s had ample opportunity to develop the latter: He’s undergone four major surgeries, the first at only 5 years old, to address symptoms of cerebral palsy.
Elijah still remembers that first surgery, a selective dorsal rhizotomy, to relax the tight muscles in his legs. After the surgery, he stayed at Gillette Children’s for six weeks of rehabilitation.
“It was really hard for me. As you can imagine, 5-year-olds aren’t too patient,” he says of the experience. “But after surgery it was like, ‘Woah, I’m flexible!’ I could do a lot more stuff. It was pretty cool.”
Elijah remembers something else about that first surgery. He shares the story with a sense of humor that comes to him easily. “When I got home they threw me a party with ice cream cake and mmmm, now I’m an ice cream man.”
Gearing Up for Camp
In January 2017 Elijah returned to Gillette for the most recent of his four surgeries. He admits the recovery’s been tough, but he’s already seeing a difference. “Now I can straighten my legs out all the way. That helps with standing up straight. It’s a lot easier to walk because I’m not, as my mom would say, walking like a T-Rex.”
The timing of Elijah’s procedures wasn’t a coincidence: He opted for January so he wouldn’t miss a much-anticipated summer tradition, Many Point Scout Camp in northern Minnesota. During the weeklong camp, Elijah and his fellow Boy Scouts work to earn merit badges by developing skills in things like archery, swimming and wilderness survival.
“You get to do different activities and find what you like,” says Elijah. “I like shotgun because the first time I used a shotgun I hit a clay pigeon. That was fun.”
He’s One of the Guys
Elijah puts his Boy Scout knowledge to use year-round when he’s playing outside with his best friend, Konner, and twin brother, Aaron, in the woods near home. They play with their slingshots and build forts, all while avoiding the wolves they swear live nearby. Elijah uses his tomahawk to cut branches and his knot-tying skills to secure them together.
“I like building forts in the woods because it gives me an opportunity to do something with my hands,” shares Elijah. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something adventurous. It’s better than being bored and feeling sorry for myself.”
Watching Elijah and his buddies interact, it’s clear their friendships are genuine ones. It’s also clear that, to Elijah’s friends, he’s just another one of the guys. They’re even building a makeshift bridge in the woods so Elijah can more easily cross a nearby creek.
Elijah shares these wise words on friendships. “You have to make friends that you enjoy hanging out with. You can’t make friends that, you know, you’re just friends because they’re popular and you want followers on Instagram.”
This Is Elijah
Elijah’s mom, Janelle Blasingame, says her son’s care at Gillette has transformed him from a watcher to a peer. “It’s awesome to see Elijah out of his chair, getting dirty like all the other boys. Gillette gave Elijah the confidence, strength, and overall ability to do things that he never imagined he could do.”
Elijah explains what it’s like to have cerebral palsy in the context of being 13. “Using a wheelchair is good and bad at the same time. A disadvantage is you can’t run around outside like your friends. An advantage is you can cut the line at Nickelodeon Universe. Chair or not, I’m the same person.”
Leader, friend, outdoorsman. Elijah is all of these things. Cerebral palsy has, admittedly, been part of Elijah’s life. Probably a larger part than he would have wanted, given the choice. But because of the early interventions—the surgeries, the therapies—he’s received, cerebral palsy isn’t Elijah’s whole story. It’s only a chapter. And, as Elijah’s family and friends will tell you, it’s the least interesting part about him.