On his first bus ride up to Blue Ridge Leaders School in the mountains of North Carolina, James Geiger was “scared to death.” But as the doors opened and he walked off the bus, his nerves went away.
“People just treated me normal,” he said. “I had never experienced that. No one judged me up there.”
Geiger’s birth mother was addicted to drugs, which trickled into his system when she was pregnant. As a result, the USF graduate student was born nine weeks premature without a heartbeat.
He was 1 pound and 2 ounces.
“The size of a dollar bill. I could fit in your hand,” he said.
Doctors revived Geiger, who has cerebral palsy – a condition caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain.
To this day, he said he is certain about one thing: “I must have a purpose. I’m not supposed to be dead yet” – one of the many lessons he learned while at the Blue Ridge Leaders School.
“I get questions like, ‘Are you mad at your mom? Do you have any remorse?'” he said. “I’m like, ‘Yes,’ because if she made the right choices, I could have not been differently-abled and my life might be totally different. What I mean by different is free from discrimination, free from heartache and being stared at – being laughed at.”
Geiger didn’t have much time to tell her how he felt. She died of a drug overdose one year after his birth. He never met his biological father. But shortly after birth, a couple adopted the native of Tacoma, Wash.
His adoptive mother encouraged him to attend the YMCA’s Blue Ridge Leaders School, where Geiger said he learned the all-important “power of P” that carries him today. Geiger, then 13, attended the camp for one week every summer for six years, taking leadership classes and participating in activities.
According to the “power of P,” there are three things everyone should have in life: passion, purpose and path.
“Without those three things, why do we live?” Geiger said.
Geiger dedicated his undergraduate years at USF to campus-life involvement.
For that reason, he told friend David Logan that he couldn’t make it to Blue Ridge to present Logan with the sixth-year jacket all campers receive after completing the program – something that disappointed him.
Logan, a senior majoring in exercise science at UNC Wilmington in North Carolina, had asked Geiger two years earlier on the night he received his jacket to be there when he received the same honor.
But it was all a part of Geiger’s plan. The day of Logan’s ceremony, Geiger showed up.
“I see David. David sees me. He drops everything and jumps into my arms,” Geiger said.
“I couldn’t really ask for much more that year,” Logan said.
Doing things for others is Geiger’s “passion.” Music is another.
Geiger co-hosts a two-hour show highlighting local bands on the student-run Bulls Radio every Monday.
“Music has sort of a healing power to it. Music has the power to change lives,” he said.
Geiger was the fifth member of Theta Chi fraternity, which started last year at USF. As an undergraduate student, Geiger also worked in Student Government as a senator for four years and was the campaign manager for a former presidential candidate.
“No matter how I sound or how I look … no one should pass judgment just because I sound a little weird or funny. That doesn’t mean squat,” said Geiger, who has a bachelor’s degree in theater arts and a minor in leadership from USF.
“I’m a graduate student doing all these things,” he said. “How can I be retarded if I’m so busy? I have no free time because I’m out doing stuff.”
Because cerebral palsy affects his hand coordination, typing can be difficult. So, he shares his thoughts and feelings through films and by maintaining a video blog – usfboi – on YouTube.
“It’s just like my journal … I’m not intending to help people by my blogs,” he said. “I’m just getting the frustrations and feelings out, but if I help someone else along the way, then that’s amazing.”
Geiger is certain that he’s meant to be in this world for something – even if he hasn’t quite figured out what just yet. He likes to consider himself a “world-changer,” especially when it comes to breaking stereotypes.
Aside from taking classes at Blue Ridge, attendees have to endure physical challenges like obstacle courses and mountain biking.
“Blue Ridge (Leaders) School is a physical-education-oriented experience, and the fact that James went up there and did the job that he needed to do and he was really given no special considerations because of his physical challenges is … inspirational for other folks,” said Al Ernst, a staff member at Blue Ridge who taught Geiger the lesson he’s carried with him.
There’s been times when Geiger, now 25, has felt like giving up. Aside from having a disability, he said being openly gay causes others to treat him differently.
“Not many people think about being gay and disabled, so when I go out and speak to people and they see me as an openly gay man with a disability, they think about what they think normal is,” he said. “And how I speak – that isn’t the definition of normal.”
One of Geiger’s goals is to make everyone he meets more open-minded, loving and accepting. People should look past the exterior of a person and look at the heart, he said.
“By me talking about my story and letting other people know about differently-abled people and what we can do, slowly one by one I will be a world changer.”
Geiger, who is now studying instructional technology (IT), hasn’t decided if he will pursue his master’s degree.
Though the opportunities with an IT degree are endless, he said, the thought of leaving USF scares him.
“Everyone in the world is fighting for a job,” he said. “It’s sad to say, but this is true: people are not going to take a person who is different. They’re going to hire someone off the street before they hire a disabled person because they’re going to stereotype me and pigeonhole me into a category before they even know me, and I hate to say that but it’s life, and I’ve seen it time and time again.”
Geiger is still searching for his path – things in life are always changing and developing, he said.
Geiger wants to live as normal of a life as possible. He’s considering the possibility of stem-cell injections to help treat his cerebral palsy. Some doctors have even written him saying his condition may be treatable.
But injections can cost more than $26,000. For now, Geiger is looking at his options.
“I created (a Facebook) group so people can share ideas and try to help me achieve that dream of living as close to normal as I can,” he said.