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The passing of the inspiration behind Be Perfect, Bryan O'Neill

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Bryan O’Neill

It is never easy to write from a place of grief, from a place of sadness, from a place of overwhelmed nature, and from a place of un-explainable feelings. Nonetheless, I write to you from each of the stances. The Be perfect Foundation has consumed my life and has given me purpose for the last 11 years, since I was injured in July 2007. At the time of injury, I was a 17-year-old child who was strong headed, strong-willed, and selfish by nature. Much of what I did, how I acted, what I pursued, and what I set out to do, started and ended with what was in it for me. Gosh did I have much to learn… At 17 years old I lived a pretty darn good life. I had loving parents, I grew up in a very fortunate household with a roof over my head and food on the table at any time that I would like. I grew up in Southern California, that in itself was a blessing. I was motivated and pushed to be the best that I could be in school by my parents who cared dearly and my extracurricular's were also identified as important aspects of my life, as my parents pushed me to be a well-rounded individual. Nonetheless, all of my greatest fantasies and dreams, all were attainable given the great opportunities that were put in front of me. "Dreams are universal, but opportunities are not." I was the latter in this statement. I had dreams and I had opportunities. I was one of the 1%. Yet I chose to be selfish. Yet I chose to do things out of what was in it for me. Until……

Ring ring ring……….

Dispatcher: 911 this is an emergency?

Innocent bystander and observer of my accident: Yes, we were traveling to Las Vegas and we saw a truck roll four times and the individual is trapped inside the truck!

I look back on this split-second and this minuscule part in the grand scheme of my life and I am grateful. A split second was all it took for everything to change. 10 seconds of my life ultimately took away 17 years of hard work of my body, my mind, my aspirations, my dreams. With this in mind, I'm still grateful because things still could have been much worse. Death… A brain injury… Plenty of things.

But, isn’t that how life works? All it takes is a split second for everything to change. You can work so hard for something and be right back to square one in a split second. You can work three months inside of a gym to work out to reach certain goals and with one week off you can go back to where you were before. You can work for years at a time to gain somebody’s trust, but one wrong decision can have them lose all the trust in the world and you. My accident was no different.

I had worked so hard to get to the next stage of my life of moving out, going to college, finding independence, and being on my own, but life had different plans for me. Everything had started and ended with what was in it for me on the path that I was traveling down. I needed to be redirected onto the right course.

I spent more than 70 days in the hospital between ICU and inpatient acute care at Casa Colina. More than 70 days of retraining the brain to reconnect the body. More than 70 days of self reflection. More than 70 days of, at times, playing woe is me and asking the question “why me?” So selfish I was…

Then it all changed. I transitioned out of inpatient rehabilitation care and started going to outpatient care at a place down in Carlsbad called Project Walk. Project Walk was known as the pioneer in spinal cord injury recovery throughout the world. Again, one of my dreams. I learned that my dreams were not taken away in my accident, I just developed new dreams. These dreams yet again, I was blessed to have the opportunities to try and attain them. That’s not the case for 99.9% of the people suffering from paralysis. Nonetheless, I would travel down to Carlsbad, California about an hour and a half in one direction commute to attend one of the most well-respected outpatient care facilities for spinal cord injury recovery in the world. Again, opportunities that other people do not have. For some seven years of my life I did this. But, in my first few days at this facility I started meeting many people, new people, but the same stories as I. Only the same stories in the sense that they had been through tragedy and through horrific accidents, but thereafter their stories were much different. These were stories of sadness, stories of depression, stories of no support behind them, stories of no or minimal resources to be utilized, yet there I was, at that moment in time an 18-year-old kid who had it all handed to me. Yes, it seemed as if the entitlement generation was true at that moment in time. However, I told you I had a revelation and it really did happen. But when?

It was a couple of months after I started that Project Walk and it was around Christmas in December 2007. I had been at Project Walk for some two months and I had become good friends with an individual by the name of Bryan O’Neill. I had learned much of the depths of Bryan's story and his aspirations for the future to try and regain physical function in his recovery. Unfortunately, for Bryan his resources were tight and time was dwindling because he was no longer going to be able to put food on the table for his family if he continued in his workout regiment at $110 per hour, twice a week for two hours at a time. Mind you, the most pivotal part in somebody's recovery after sustaining a diagnosis is there workout regiment within the first two years of their diagnosis. Thus, I remember talking to Bryan right before Christmas and right before I would be taking two weeks off at Project Walk to go on a family vacation, again another luxury that 99.9% of people don’t have. Bryan told me he would be spending the holidays at home trying to keep his life intact, trying to aspire to be the father to his newborn child, Ezra, that he wanted to be, and trying to go back to the drawing board to figure out how he could make ends meet to keep his home, keep his car, keep the lights on in his house, and put food on the table for his family. Bryan flat-out told me, I would not be seeing him after the holidays.

I had a pit inside of my stomach trying to wrap my head around how such a gracious and hard-working 42-year-old man who had been injured doing what he loved, dirt biking, could have it all taken away from him in a split second. What did he do to deserve that? Why was I so blessed at the age of 18? I had not put my time in. I had done nothing to affect others. I was a product of being at the right place at the right time with a family that had resources. But why me? And this time I was asking why me for the antithesis of why I had been asking it before. Why was I so lucky?

I remembered in that moment that I wheeled out to my father who was with me at therapy that day and I looked at him and for the first time in some five months since my accident, I had finally figured out that I had purpose in my life again. I had finally figured out what I had been called to do. The writing was on the wall. It was right in front of my face. But what was I going to do about it? Was I going to let that moment passed me by? Yet again… No, I couldn’t do that one more time and bear to live with myself. So, I did something about it. I made the change and it was the best decision I ever made in my life.

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Without really knowing what I was saying or doing, I wheeled right back up to the front desk of Project Walk and simply told them that Bryan O’Neill would be sponsored by the Hargrave family after the holidays. What was I thinking? What did that mean? In any case, I had a father and a mother, and a family behind me that was waiting for something like this. How were we going to make lemonade, so to speak? How could we take a bad situation and make it good. I thought for the longest time that those hundreds of people that were in the hospital supporting me wanted me to return the favor at some point by thanking them and doing things for them. Little did I know, they were there to support me, so I could pay it forward by helping others who were in my situation. The writing had been on the wall for five months. I never saw it. I was oblivious. I was selfish, remember, right? After an hour and a half drive home from Carlsbad that day, it had basically been determined that the Hargrave family was setting out on a wild adventure, one in which we never knew how it would start, how it would go, or how it would end. Or if it would end? Would it even start?

In what seemed like a literal blur at that very moment we got home and filed for our non-profit status in the State of California and it was approved. The Be Perfect Foundation was born. The initial thought and intent behind the foundation was to help people suffering from spinal cord injuries, like Bryan O’Neill, pay for exercised-based therapy programs like Project Walk. Oh how it has evolved over the years…(We now support people with a variety of different neurological ailments pay for things like medical supplies, wheelchairs, and adaptations of homes and cars in addition to paying for exercise-based therapy programs) But, Bryan was the literal inspiration behind it all. The person who got me back up on my feet, the person who gave me perspective, the person who made me realize I was not in this alone, that I was not the only one suffering, that family and people around us suffer too. He taught me that people around us are also going through similar situations, or even situations of their own that we should acknowledge. Bryan taught me to grow up quick. I’ll never forget his words that resonated with me that changed my life forever. He said, “Hal you are my hero.”

I couldn’t help but think, “Why and how can I be this guy’s hero? He is more than double my age and has done double the amount to affect people around him. What have I done?”

I didn’t ask any questions of what he meant by that. I simply took it and ran with it as something to motivate me every day. I took it as something that I should take pride in and be proud to be me every single day, because somebody twice my age felt that way about me. It was in that moment I learned that I need to be selfless rather than selfish. People were counting on me. People were looking up to me. People were looking to see what my next move might be. I couldn’t let them down. This was bigger than just me at this point.

Little did I know that nine months after my accident that I would be sitting up on stage for the first ever Be Perfect event. Again, inspired by Bryan O’Neill.

I remember planning for the first ever event. Talking with my parents. We hoped that we could have 250 people in attendance and raise $35,000. Welp, there went that. The first annual event had more than 800 people in attendance and we raised $250,000 in one night. Maybe people really were counting on me. Maybe people really did believe in what I was doing. But, again they were not there to support me in terms of wanting me to return the favor to them. They were there to support me, so I could pay it forward to others who needed our help.

So, here we are some 11 years later. Post Eight annual events. We have never raised less than $250,000 at an event and we have never had less than 800 people in attendance. We have grown every year. People rally behind us every year. More people come to our doorstep wanting to be a part of what we are doing every year. All because of Bryan.

I told you that I write from a place of grief, discomfort, ailing, and sadness. Last Thursday, two days before the Eighth Annual Be Perfect Scholarship Fundraiser, Bryan left this green earth. Bryan’s final breath was symbolic of his tenacity, his fight, and his life that he lived for others. Bryan can no longer fight, so this is now our chance to fight for him.

Bryan had been suffering for many years from a pressure sore that became a very bad infection that would not heal. The secondary complications from his injury which we preach so often about and how they are detrimental to the body and the mind, is ultimately what took him down. None of this was for a lack of trying or what Bryan could not do mentally, but his body physically couldn't allow for any longer. Bryan is now in a place where he is not suffering, where complications are not detrimental to his life. But that is not to say that there are things now that we could do to prevent this in the future with other people that we know.

At outpatient facilities like The Perfect Step, we do not provide false hope by way of telling people that they are going to walk again, but what we do tell them is that they will become healthy through the process of participating in an exercise-based therapy program. Ultimately, we are about quality of life and health. We believe that exercise is medicine and that the body was intended to move.

Bryan did not have access nor the means to attend therapy like The Perfect Step in his later years of his life. Of course, the foundation was willing to cover these costs, but Bryan physically could not get to a program like The Perfect Step because of the secondary complications that he was dealing with.

The Perfect Step believes that through intense exercise that the likelihood of experiencing secondary complications goes exponentially down. When the body moves frequently and often, people are less susceptible to pressure sores, bladder infections, heterotrophic ossification, osteopenia/osteoporosis, blood pressure issues, mental and physical fatigue, and much more. Is that not worth the price of admission? Doesn’t that give quality of life? But even at an industry low price of $95 an hour at The Perfect Step, people do not have the opportunities that I have to go and get therapy on a regular basis. So, what can we do about it?

We must be advocates in the community for what paralysis is and what it means. The Perfect Step treats clients who are suffering from all types of neurological ailments in paralysis: Spinal Cord Injury, Stroke, Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, Parkinson’s, Traumatic Brain Injury, ALS, PLS.

In so many different ways, many of us are directly or indirectly connected with somebody who suffers from one of these chronic illnesses. It’s our turn and our chance to help them now.

By going in raising awareness, raising dollars, and giving hope, we can change these people’s lives. With what started as an inspirational factor by somebody who is no longer with us, Bryan O’Neill, it is our turn to fight for him now. Will you fight with me?

Donate today to the be perfect foundation, some people suffering can be given opportunities to attain their dreams.

Bryan O'Neill is survived by his wife Amber, his son Ezra, and his daughter Brittany. God bless them.

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