As she turns her head to take a sip of a strawberry fruit punch, Theresa Boyd, paralyzed from her neck down, calls out to her brown kitty, Bella, for misbehaving.
The simple admonishment belies the miracle that Ms. Boyd of Tyler can speak at all.
More than a decade ago, Ms. Boyd, now 29, was told she would never speak again due to injuries she suffered in a traffic accident.
“Everything in life can be taken from you in a heartbeat, but your mind, your spirit, that’s you. That’s who you are,” she said. “I was given a gift. I was given a second chance, and I want to use that chance to help others improve their life.”
Today, she does that through everything from motivational speaking in schools to stand-up comedy to speech competitions. She leaves her audiences inspired, laughing and sometimes crying.
During a recent interview, her body delicately pressed on a red wheelchair, Ms. Boyd, with a support of leopard print pillow, leaned forward with a smile and explained things from her viewpoint.
“There are perks to this wheelchair, I tell you,” she said. “First of all, I get great parking. Second of all … I have an assistant who goes to classes with me.
“I always have someone to open the door for me. I get bed in breakfast every morning. I have my own cosmetologist, hairstylist, fashion designer you name it ... There are good things. One of the good things is that I can use it to help people.”
She was 17 when tragedy served as the starting point for the life she leads now. This month marks the 12th anniversary of the wreck that left her paralyzed.
It was a sunny afternoon in 2001 as she sat on the front middle seat in a friend’s pickup truck. She was headed to Pizza Hut for her evening shift.
On a road in Fairfield, the driver lost control of the vehicle, which plunged into a culvert. Ms. Boyd was ejected and landed in a nearby field.
“I had broken all but two vertebrate bones in my neck,” Ms. Boyd said. “There was a lot of damage and swelling to the spinal cord. It’s like being paralyzed for the most part.”
She spent two months in an intensive-care unit before transfer to a rehabilitation hospital, where she remained for three months.
Her life on hold and her passion for running track destroyed, her spirits sank.
“I had a few days where I had my mournful moments, but then I told myself, ‘Hey, just because I can’t do that, that doesn’t mean my story is over,’” she said. “It just means that I start a new chapter, and there’s another path.”
Her hospital room became her classroom, where she continued her high school studies, with a determination to graduate on time.
“I said, ‘No, I grew up with my class, I’m going to graduate with my class,’ and I took classes,” Boyd said. “When I came home, I graduated that same year.”
Today, part of her new direction is drawing awareness to others about their choices in life, the struggles of a person with disabilities and encouragement for a happier lifestyle.
“She has so many experiences and life lessons that she always wants to share with people,” said Mae Rose Hill, performing theater major at Tyler Junior College. “She makes a point of letting people know what the consequences of certain actions are and how to handle things best, how to be professional, how to be an adult, how to be mature and not cause problems. She’s always trying to keep people from doing things that might hurt themselves.”
With a 4.0 grade-point average, Ms. Boyd earned her associate’s degree in speech communications in May from TJC and shares her story and perspective with young people at area schools.
“When you watch her perform, she has this glow about her, like she’s just beaming, and everyone just can’t take their eyes off of her,” Ms. Hill said. “So she just has this presence about her that draws people in.”
Along the way, Ms. Boyd became involved in the TJC speech and debate team. Becoming a big-sister figure to classmates, displaying communication skills and touching hearts is a focus.
M’Liss Hindman, speech professor for 36 years at TJC, said, “It’s amazing to see it, how much outpouring of love she has created for other people. They realize how blessed they are with the gift that they have, and they feel that she is quite an inspiration to them.
“She shows that even if you are using a wheelchair, that doesn’t mean that you can’t give 100 percent effort all the time, and you can achieve your goals. She is a shining example of someone who sets a goal and figures out how to achieve it.”
Ms. Boyd is continuing her public appearances while polishing off her associate’s degree in high school education this summer.
“There’s a stigma that once you’re disabled, in a wheelchair, you’re done,” Ms. Boyd said. “It’s not true. There’s a lot of opportunity with hard work.”