Volunteer focuses on service, not disability

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Monday's Man

By Robert Villanueva

When you first meet James Best you might see a name badge that signifies he volunteers at the Elizabethtown American Red Cross.


Or you might notice a black rubber wrist band that sports the name of a favorite wrestler.

You might even see him driving down the street.

Or if you’re like others Best meets, you might see only his disability.

The 41-year-old Elizabethtown man is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair. At birth, Best was diagnosed with spina bifida, which is described by the Spina Bifida Association of Kentucky as a “neural tube defect that occurs when the structure enclosing the spinal cord fails to form properly.”

The diagnosis did not deter Best from doing what he wants, but it seems to have blinded some to that fact.

“People don’t see my abilities,” Best said.

Driving a car modified by his stepfather to work by a hand control, Best reports to the Elizabethtown American Red Cross each Monday through Friday to do volunteer work. He works on the office side and the blood donor side.

Among other things, Best answers the phone, welcomes guests, registers them and provides them with any information they need. If he doesn’t know the answer to a question, he finds out, he said.

Best has volunteered at the Elizabethtown American Red Cross for 14 years. He feels it is a way to give back to the community and to “get out of the house and not be bored.”

“I don’t do the ‘poor me’ thing,” he said.

On one occasion, Best recalled, he even fell on the ground outside his workplace when no one was around. He got himself back up and to his car.

“I don’t ask for help unless I really, really need it,” Best said.

Best lives with his parents in the home he has lived in all his life. Though his mother worries about him and wants him home by dark, he can’t always comply because of activities.

Best keeps a positive attitude about his life and doesn’t focus on his disability, he said.

Sometimes, he said, he even jokes about it, telling people he can’t dance because he’s got four left wheels, for example.

With October being Spina Bifida Awareness month, Best hopes more people will learn about what the Mayo Clinic classifies as a birth defect. The biggest misconception he’s experienced is that people think he can’t do anything because he uses a wheelchair, he said.

In September Best participated in the SBAK Walk-N-Roll, a 1-mile walk to create awareness and raise money for the organization. Best raised more than $700 in pledges.

Best hopes to organize a fundraising wheelchair basketball game in the future.

“He is an awesome volunteer,” Elizabethtown American Red Cross executive director Sharon Thompson said. “We kind of call him the glue to the office sometimes.”

That’s because he keeps track of the staff, she said.

Thompson described Best as “dedicated,” “very professional” and “easy to talk to.”

At various events, when he is staffing a table for the office, Best is recognized by many people who know him, she said.

Talking to people is something Best loves, his sister, Faye Peters of Elizabethtown, said. She said her brother is “strong willed, caring, and considerate of others.”

Peters also lauded her brother’s attitude.

“James has been through and overcome many obstacles in life,” Peters said. “He doesn’t let being confined to a wheelchair define who he is.”

Another sister, Sharon Struwe, of Elizabethtown, said anyone who knows her brother “would say he is a very special person to have in their life.”

“James gets past his disability by wanting to be treated like everyone else,” Struwe said. “He loves being around people and having fun.”

Struwe described her brother’s best qualities as “being dependable and thinking of others before himself.” He loves being in public and around people, she said.

Best plans to continue volunteering for the rest of his life and encouraged others to consider volunteering. Helping others is rewarding, he said.

“You’re getting paid but not by money,” Best said.

Robert Villanueva can be reached at 270-505-1743 

or rvillanueva@thenewsenterprise.com.



Favorite music: Elvis Presley

Favorite TV shows: “The Big Bang Theory” and wrestling

Favorite movies: “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Can You Hear the Laughter”

Favorite book: “The Red Badge of Courage”

Hobbies: Music. He has a collection of more than 1,000 CDs and is a “huge Kiss fan.”

Special interest: He has thought about working in radio because he has a vast knowledge of music and believes he has the voice for it.