Jessica as a child

Jessica as a child

It’s not often in life that we get to meet someone we truly admire. That was my thought back in November of 2011, when I drove to South Pasadena to meet with Jessica Cox and her fiance, Patrick Chamberlain. I had become aware of Jessica after seeing a short interview with her, and was intrigued. I looked online and saw that she lives in Tucson, Arizona — the same town I grew up in — and I couldn’t resist writing her a note. I told her that if she ever came out to Los Angeles I would love to meet her. Imagine my surprise when she wrote back and said, “I’m coming out in a couple of weeks, let’s meet. sent from my blackberry.” I was doubly surprised and delighted to realize I was not only going to get to meet Jessica, but that she’d typed that note with her toes!

Flash forward to our meeting, in the house of her fiance’s aunt Joanne in a beautiful area of South Pasadena. She and Patrick met me at the door, and I exchanged an awkward hug — how does one shake the hand of someone with no arms anyway? Then they invited me in for what proved to be an interesting conversation. We talked about all sorts of things ranging from Jessica’s birth and childhood, to her awkward years as a teen, and her long struggle to overcome challenges external and internal. On occasion Jessica sipped some tea from a cup, using her foot to grasp the handle — and I soon noticed that I forgot that she had any kind of “impairment” whatsoever. “That’s how it is with Jess,” Patrick chimed in when I made comment. “She makes it look effortless.” Of course it is not (and more on this later but suffice to say much of what Jessica does is the result of carefully applied “out of the shoe thinking” — creative strategizing about how to do anything with ten toes.)

Jessica with the two loves of her life - fiance Patrick and her Ercoupe airplane

Jessica with the two loves of her life – fiance Patrick and her Ercoupe airplane

The remarkable thing that struck me in talking to Jessica, was how she had turned her “disability” into the thing that absolutely empowered her life. Now, thanks to her own efforts and will, she was a licensed pilot, a certified SCUBA diver and a Taekwondo black belt, with a college degree — and a small businesswoman and motivational speaker. She was now traveling the world, putting out a positive message and starting to work as an activist — trying to change the minds of people about how they treat the alternately abled, and open up doors of opportunity. She was also working hard to mentor children and their families, whenever and wherever she could. “That is one of my greatest passions,” Jessica told me. “For example to reach out to a child who was also born without arms, to reach out to their parents and say it is going to be okay. I’ve done this many times, all over the country, all over the globe.”

While Jessica’d been profiled in many news magazine segments and in a longer-form TV show, no one had ever shown her mentoring efforts, and these were now key to who she is. Would I be interested in working with her to make a film about her life, and her outreach work? I wasn’t sure. Making a documentary about Jessica after all, would be an enormous undertaking, and I wasn’t sure how it would work or what the story would be. But I could see it might be compelling, inspirational, and worth the hard work because the longer I sat there, the more taken I was with Jessica’s spirit.

On a visit to Africa, Jessica met a woman with her same condition.

On a visit to Africa, Jessica met a woman with her same condition.

Then, when our meeting was nearly over, things changed for me. Why were they visiting Los Angeles, anyway? It turned out that Jessica and Patrick planned to get married at a church nearby in April, and Patrick’s Aunt Joanne would host the reception. “What does it mean for you to get married?” I asked. That turned out to be a complex question for Jessica, who viewed her coming wedding as proof positive that she’d arrived at a new level in life — one where she was emotionally strong and confident with who she is. She dreamed that she would be able to share that story with the wider world. “Telling my story allows people to put things in perspective,” she told me. “You know, when people see me they say, ‘Oh, well if she can do that with her feet, then there isn’t much that I can’t do.’ But it also helps people especially children who have disabilities. Who feel like they are limited and that there isn’t any hope. But to see someone who doesn’t have any arms fly an airplane, and even more importantly, find love and get married, and see me for me — that’s really important.” She was inviting several children who she’d mentored over the years to her wedding, and was hoping that this big moment in her life, would change their lives as well. “If only we could share it with the world,” she said. “That would be amazing.”

When she said that, I realized I was stuck. Somehow I had to find a way to help Jessica tell her story.

More next time — Nick Spark, Director