How to Hug, and Pay it Forward, Without Arms

Over the last few days, I have received an overwhelming number of phone calls and messages about a picture that went viral of a hug between me and a little girl born without arms. Meeting her was so special for me—in many different ways.

Three-year-old R.E. (which stands for Ruth Evelyn) came to a special screening of Right Footed, the documentary film about my life. We were showing it at AIRVENTURE, the world’s largest air show, held annually in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Oshkosh was my final stop on a two-week, motivational tour that took my husband Patrick and I across Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, and Kentucky.

Before we left Arizona, I searched for days for a Facebook message I had received two years ago, from a mother in Minnesota who had little girl who was also born without arms. I wanted to invite her to the annual International Child Amputee Network conference which I was attending in Ohio. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find the message and just hoped that she would somehow hear of that event, and show up.

Whenever possible, I try to meet and mentor children and young adults without arms. It’s so important for young people with disabilities to know that they are not alone in their circumstances, and that they can lead happy, successful lives despite the challenges they face.

One of the hardest things about growing up as a person without arms was feeling that I was profoundly different from everyone else around me. I had no road map or guide to show me how to adapt to life without arms.

But when I was 18, a TV program featured Barbara Guerra, a woman without arms who seemed to have it all. She was active and independent, and had just had a baby with her husband. She lived just a couple of hours drive away from my home, so I arranged a visit. I was amazed to meet this beautiful, confident woman. She could pick up her baby, change his diaper, and perform all kinds of other tasks with ease. If she had learned to do all these things without arms, why couldn’t I? 

Barbara challenged me to be more independent. I finally had a role model and mentor to help me navigate through physical and mental challenges. I stopped letting my mother and other people do things for me like grocery shopping—I learned how to do it myself. I tried new things, like moving into my own apartment. In many ways, Barbara’s influence put me on the trajectory I am on today. Now that I’m an adult, it’s only fair that I give back what I received. If you watch Right Footed, you can see my interactions with Barbara and several girls without arms I now mentor.

On the day of the Right Footed screening at AIRVENTURE, I was sitting in the theater when my husband told me that someone had messaged him on Facebook, asking to meet. We looked around, and there I saw Karlyn, the same mother who had messaged me two years before! Beside her was her daughter, R.E., who is the cutest little girl!

As I walked over to R.E., she looked at me with wide-eyed surprise! She seemed to be slowly realizing that I was different from any of the other people she knew. We walked out of the theater together, and went to the lobby. There weren’t many seats around, so we sat on the floor. This was a special treat because, as you probably don’t know, sitting on the floor is actually most comfortable for us foot-users, because it gives us more support when we using our feet and legs.

Sitting there with R.E., I could see how she was watching me very closely, observing how I went about doing things, and making the connection that just like her, I move around and accomplish everyday tasks differently than others. After she saw me typing on my phone with my toes, she excitedly grabbed her mom’s phone and started using her toes to play with it!

I knew she had decided that we'd be friends when she asked if she could see my airplane. Cam, one of the volunteers at the air show, was kind enough to drive us to the nearest Ercoupe (the kind of plane that I fly). R.E. was able to climb up onto the plane’s wing, where I explained how I fly the plane, by controlling the yoke with my foot. She listened in awe.

On the way back to the museum, I asked Cam if I could drive. I knew that such a demonstration would be powerful not just for R.E., but also for her mom. In a special way, I remembered my own mother, who was my first passenger when I learned to drive.

As we said goodbye, R.E. put her little body against mine, and gave me a hug. As I hugged her back, I realized that this hug was not like 99.9% of the hugs I receive. You see, because we have no arms, we hug by squeezing the other person’s shoulder with our chin. It was very reaffirming for me to be a given a hug in the same way I give hugs.

I think her mother summarized the impact of our encounter when she told me that before R.E. met me, she would often say to her mother, “I want arms.” Now R.E. says, “I don't need arms.”

Karlyn recently sent me a photo of R.E. in an airplane ride at an amusement park back home. The message sent with the photo read: “Gotta start somewhere!”


Jessica Cox