June 2012 - Maria S, Atlanta, GA

Hello 3E Lovers!  

Welcome to our first edition of 3E Lover of the Month!   We are very excited to feature some of you, the people that make everything possible!  You wear our clothing and purchase our items.  You spread the message of embrace, educate, and empower.  Without you, there would be no 3E Love Movement!  

Our goal is to find one individual or family every month who embodies the 3E Love way of life and the meaning of our International Symbol of Acceptance. We will interview these people to share their story, give them tons of free stuff, feature them on our Facebook and website, and also include them in our annual calendar.  

To be considered, please submit your story at http://www.3elove.com/pages/3e-diaries.  Photos must be landscape orientation and high quality to be considered.  

This first month, I want to introduce you to someone who I first met on the internet after she purchased a LOVE Zip-Up.  We started chatting since I knew we had a lot in common and then we met in person this year at the Atlanta Abilities Expo!   

Meet Maria!  

3E Stevie:  Hello 3E Lovers of the world, today I am with Maria, my friend and 3E Lover! We have selected her as our first ever 3E Lover of the month... Maria, how does it feel to be the first ever 3E Lover of the month?

Maria:  It feels really exciting! I was flattered when you came forward and asked me to participate in this, Stevie. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to spread the 3E Love!

3E Stevie:  You are very welcome :) I have only met you once, but as soon as I got to know you a little and learned more about your life, I knew that you embodied the 3E Love... Anyway, everyone else needs to know you as well. Tell me about yourself! Who are you? Where do you live? You know, the basics!

Maria:  A little about myself, eh? Well, I'm a 25-year-old graduate student going to school in Atlanta. Currently pursuing a dual master's degree in city planning and public policy, some would say I'm a bit of a nerd, but I really love what I'm studying. Another thing I'm really passionate about is independent music, and that passion has led me to become the Program Director at my university's radio station, WREK 91.1 FM. Oh, and I also happen to be a cancer survivor living with a type of Muscular Dystrophy called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA).

3E Stevie:  Woah! It's hard to ask a follow up question after that, because there is about 13 things i am interested in! We have a lot in common and we can probably talk for hours. Lets start off simple, do you want to share with our readers what Spinal Muscular Atrophy is and a little bit more about how it affects your daily life?

Maria: Spinal Muscular Atrophy is a genetic disease within the Muscular Dystrophy family of illnesses. The basic gist of the condition revolves around the fact that my body does not produce enough of a certain protein. Over time, lack of this protein causes my muscles to weaken or "atrophy". I first started showing symptoms of muscle weakness when I was about 11 months old, and as a result never learned to walk. By kindergarten, however, I was equipped with a sweet power wheelchair and have been cruising through life ever since.

3E Stevie:  I feel a little bad that I made you type all of that since I also have SMA :) But thank you for educating our fellow 3E Lovers! So you use a power wheelchair and have been using one for most of your life... You have clearly embraced it now but was there ever a time that you were upset about your disability, situation, inability to walk and preform other daily tasks?

Maria: I was fortunate enough to be born to parents that never let me take no for an answer. As a child, I did everything else children my age did: I went to school and was expected to excel academically, when not in school I was driven around to art lessons or choir rehearsals, and my summers were spent swimming, playing outside in the dirt, and going to various camps. This led me to be a very determined pre-teen and, admittedly, caused some internal struggle for me as my muscle weakness began to progress with age. There were definitely times where I struggled with pushing my body to keep up with my thirst for independence. This struggle remained with me through my teen years and is still a part of my life today, but the positive (and somewhat stubborn) attitude instilled in me by my family helps me overcome most of the obstacles that I encounter to this day.

3E Stevie:  So, it sounds like you were able to embrace your differences very early on and that has helped you overcome any obstacles. Earlier you had mentioned you are in graduate school. Congratulations on getting so far in your education! When you were an undergrad and even today, what are your living arrangements like? Are they different from when you were in high school? Tell me about the transition.

Maria:  Thank you! I owe a lot of my academic success to the fact that I come from a first generation immigrant family. My father brought my family to the United States by deciding to further his education.  Excelling academically not only brought my family to this country but allowed me to live a better life. As a result, academic success was always highly valued and highly encouraged by my parents. As immigrants, a lot of the social services provided to United States citizens were not available to us, so when I graduated high school and was accepted into college, my family bought a house near campus and moved with me so I could continue my education. This physical support allowed me to complete my undergraduate studies and graduate with honors. However, it also left some independence to be desired. Now a US citizen and graduate student, I'm working toward acquiring the proper funding to hire my own help and live as independently as possible.

3E Stevie:  Interesting! I did know a lot about you and that you were from Russia, but I was unaware of the impact that has had on your independence and service availability. Do you currently live on your own or with your parents?

Maria: I currently live with my parents, but have an attendant that helps me with my daily physical tasks. I hope to hire more attendants this summer and eventually be able to live on my own (or with roommmates).

3E Stevie:  So once you finish school and find the magical world of independence, what are your plans? What do you want to do?

Maria:  Well, right now one of the concentrations of my master's program is transportation planning, so I'd really love to work in that sector and help make communities more accessible to all, be it through improved sidewalks, added bike lanes, or construction of public transit lines. I'd also like to stay involved in the independent music scene on the side by booking shows or maybe even starting my own little DIY record label.

3E Stevie:  Very cool. I know nothing about transportation other than what my GPS tells me :) Another reason we have a lot in common, I used to own a record label before my sister passed away and became immersed in the 3E Love world. It was very tough and eye opening, but a lot of fun for a music lover. What are some of your favorite bands? Any great concert stories involving your disability?

Maria: Oh goodness! I love lots of bands, but I think my "holy trinity" are Beirut, Sunset Rubdown, and Les Savy Fav. I've been fortunate to see all three live, each offering different experiences. Les Savy Fav in particular were a blast. They're this art punk band from New York City that made a rare tour stop in Atlanta a few years ago, shortly after my cancer went into remission. Their energetic set full of moshing, sweaty concert-goers and on- (and off-) stage theatrics served as a means for me to feel truly alive again. However, their set was topped a couple years later when I caught another punk band, the Black Lips, in concert. The Black Lips are notoriously wild, but having survived a Les Savy Fav show I thought I'd surely be okay. The concert took place in an old gallery space whose lease was running up, whose lights and electricity were intermittent, and whose heat had been turned off in the dead of Georgia winter. Except for the concrete exterior and some isolated sheet rock, most of the physical gallery structure had been torn down, and by the end of the band's set the remainder of the building was expected to be demolished as well. I was fortunate enough to have attended this once in a lifetime show with one of my seasoned punk friends. Unfortunately, I didn't heed his advice and decided to stay front row center for the Black Lips' set.  As soon as they started to play, the crowd went nuts. The sheer momentum of the mosh pit I found myself in was so strong, that throughout the concert I could feel my wheelchair being pushed sideways against the rotation of its wheels. I almost fell out of my chair during several instances, but was caught by my friend or a nearby stranger. By the end of the concert, I found myself at stage left, covered in PBR, and feeling not only alive... but immortal! The camaraderie exhibited by the people there that night, the people that literally held me up when I was down, was a controlled chaos that I had never witnessed before. That night, I became an honorary punk.

3E Stevie:  Wow, and I had thought my concert experiences were wild. I once accidentally found myself stuck in a mosh pit at an Anthrax concert. That was by accident and the worst thing that happened to me was that I got hit by someone's bra! Your stories sound much more exhilarating! You have referenced that you are a cancer survivor several times. I have personally never met someone who has had both a severe physical disability and has experienced cancer at such a young age. Could you tell me more about that?

Maria:  Sure! I was diagnosed with a rare type of soft tissue cancer at the age of 20. One morning I was brushing my hair and, upon holding the brush to the palm of my hand, I felt a sharp pain. At first I thought it was a insect bite of some sort, but after going to the doctor and having them be unable to find anything, I was sent for a series of tests to identify what they thought might be a cyst. Unfortunately, those tests indicated something suspicious and I was quickly sent in for a biopsy. The biopsy proved positive, and after a very short period of panic and reflection, I elected to undergo a year of chemotherapy and a month of radiation. The year that I was in treatment was simultaneously the longest and shortest time of my life. When I look back on it, the time period just feels like a blur, but when I was experiencing it, time felt like it was nearly standing still. It's a really odd feeling and an extraordinary experience to have lived through, but I'm happy to say that all tests since the completion of my therapy have been negative for cancer and as of today I've been in remission for nearly 4 years!

3E Stevie:  You make it sound like it was so easy when most people would have let that experience change them forever. After speaking with you more, I am reminded again why I chose you as the 3E Lover of the month!  You embrace your challenges, seek to educate others, and also empower those around you with your drive.  It also sounds like you do love life!  How could you not, being a front row at a punk concert!  Before we go, could you tell me what 3E Love and the International Symbol of Acceptance means to you?  Does anyone ever ask you about it when you sport our clothing around the office or out and about? 

Maria:  Haha, well, it wasn't easy by any means. In fact, it was probably one of the most challenging and life-altering experiences I've ever undergone. That said, the 3ELove mantra of embrace, educate, and empower played a big role in my cancer treatment and recovery. During treatment I had to embrace that getting well was my new reality and that it would take time to recuperate. Once my treatment was complete I found that educating others about my experiences not only empowered me, but also fostered acceptance in those I shared my knowledge with. So, to me, 3E Love and the International Symbol of Acceptance stand for the steps people can take to look within themselves and see that they are just like everyone else around them: Human. I think the wheelchair heart symbol embodies that sentiment, because whenever I've worn it out I've gotten compliments, not questions, on it.

3E Stevie:  Well, Maria, it's time for me to depart from this lovely chat.  I had a great time getting to know you a little better, and I am super stoked to show this to all the rest of our 3E Lovers out there.  Thank you so much for being a part of this.  Until we meet again, keep being awesome.

Maria:  Thanks for letting me be a part of this, Stevie!