This Saturday was an incredibly exciting day for me – in Whitehall Borough, it was officially “Heather Tomko Day.”
Whitehall is where I’ve lived my whole life, so it was a special honor to be chosen as this year’s Person of the Year, and to be given my own day and official proclamation. It’s always exciting to be honored for the advocacy work I’m doing, and for winning Ms. Wheelchair USA. But I’m especially grateful to be honored in the community where I grew up and went to school.
I was incredibly lucky to live in a community like Whitehall. Growing up, I can honestly say that I never felt left out or excluded. I’m sure that part of that is because I found an amazing group of friends, most of which I’m still close with to this day, but I think a lot of it is because the greater community, as a whole, made sure that I was included. Schools were renovated to add elevators, and we worked with the district to ensure that I was in the same classes that everyone else was. I didn’t even have a classroom aide with me for most of the time, I just had friends in my classes to help me. This was so important to me, because it went a long way towards giving me the independence that I craved, and making me feel like I fit in.
I know that bullying is a huge problem right now in schools, and an even larger problem for children with disabilities, but it wasn’t something that I ever experienced. I always joke that if I was bullied, I didn’t know about it, so it didn’t bother me, but truly – I cannot think of one instance where I was made fun of or mocked because of my wheelchair. And while I may not have realized it at the time, I’m sure that went a long way towards helping me feel comfortable in my wheelchair, and not making me feel like my wheelchair was the only thing that people saw.
That’s why this honor is so special to me – growing up where I did, in the community that I did, helped shape me into who I am today.