By Ethan Bailey
You can find him catching air at the skate park, shooting hoops on the basketball court or riding a wave at the beach. His favorite book is “Magic Treehouse #5: Night of the Ninjas” and he just started reading the “Harry Potter” series. His favorite food is chicken with corn on the cob on the side.
His name is Hunter Pochop and he lives with his parents, Jacqueline and Pete, and four siblings in North San Diego County. He’s a fourth grader at Lake Elementary School in Vista. He also lives with a rare condition known as spina bifida which, according to the Spina Bifida Association, happens when a baby’s spinal column doesn’t completely close while in the womb. The association’s website says eight babies with spina bifida are born every day in the United States.
But 9-year-old Hunter doesn’t like to associate himself with the term “disabled.” In fact, his mother Jacqueline said he was vocal all along about not being labeled as “handicapped” or “disabled.”
“I asked him for the first time what his disability was about a year ago,” Jacqueline said. “He replied, ‘What’s a disability?'”
Cool shoes, dude
Shedding labels is part of what Hunter has learned from being a “kindness ambassador” for Peach’s Neet Feet, a non-profit organization that creates custom-painted pairs of shoes for children living with disabilities and terminal illnesses. In return, all the organization asks is that people like Hunter “pay it forward” with kindness. Being a “kindness ambassador” means Hunter spreads kindness in his community and among his peers. Hunter’s mom said he has even sponsored four pairs of shoes with his own money he saved. Each pair of Neet Feet costs $40 to sponsor.
The shoes are designed with phrases and items important to each child. For Hunter, his blue pair of Etnies have the words “Brave” and “Trust ” painted on the sides in his favorite color, orange. “The Unstoppable Porkchop,” a nickname given to Hunter by Neet Feet founder Madison “Peach” Steiner herself, is written on the right shoe. Even a roll of his favorite candy, Smarties, is drawn on the side of his left shoe.
“It’s really given him the opportunity to open up about the things he likes,” Jacqueline said.
Hunter has received the message of “paying it forward” well—he recently donated one of his old wheelchairs to a boy named Witten in New Mexico.
“(Witten) had a big clunker wheelchair that his mom and dad were lifting and it was really heavy,” Jacqueline said. “So (Hunter) wanted to donate his chair so Witten could have a lighter wheelchair and get around more easily.”
She said the two boys met through Peach’s Neet Feet in person last month and are already good friends.
Hunter Pochop the athlete
While Hunter has helped others, others have also helped Hunter get to where he is now. His mom said The Challenged Athletes Foundation played a big role in Hunter’s development as a person and an athlete. She credits the Foundation’s Project N.Ex.T (New Expectations Today), which is only offered in San Diego, for pairing Hunter with a mentor to help him adapt and grow.
James Sa is Hunter’s mentor and said the group pairs children and mentors with similar disabilities, with mentors acting as a guiding hand for kids like Hunter.
“I just watch him skate,” Sa said. “But I think that’s pretty important for a kid. They need to feel like they’re supported to be successful.”
Sa is 24-years-old and was injured in the 2011 “Warrior Dash,” a type of obstacle course race when he dove into a mud pit near the finish line and broke his neck. He said it’s inspiring to watch Hunter be himself when they’re together.
“It’s uplifting to see a kid 9-years-old with such poise,” Sa said. “He’s not bitter … he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder about it. He’s incredibly positive and eager to show people he’s very able.”
Hunter has been involved with Challenged Athletes for about five years. For the first three years, Hunter would only participate in the “Tour De Cove,” an endurance session on stationary handcycles. But two years ago, his mom Jacqueline met Director of Programs Carolyn Odom at an adaptive sports summer camp. She encouraged Hunter’s mom to apply for financial grants that would help Hunter get what he needed to become more than just a stationary handcyclist. In 2013, Hunter received a grant for a basketball wheelchair which Jacqueline said would normally cost about $2,500.
When James Sa isn’t hanging out with Hunter, he helps write these kinds of grants for the Challenged Athletes Foundation. He said he writes proposals explaining the kids’ situations to companies and individual donors, who then supply the funding for items such as Hunter’s wheelchair. He said kids are guaranteed one grant in the first year of being in Project N.Ex.T.
“I would’ve had to pay that out of my pocket because my insurance isn’t going to cover it,” Jacqueline Pochop said. “The chair he got was measured and built specifically for him. Hunter wouldn’t be where he is without Challenged Athletes.”
The specialized chair is called a “BOX wheelchair” meaning it was built by Mike Box, a former aerospace industry worker who began making custom fit wheelchairs in 1992. Hunter’s everyday use wheelchair is also made by Box, who personally sponsored the chair about two years ago.
Jacqueline said having the special wheelchair has allowed Hunter to participate in more events in the annual Challenged Athletes Triathlons, held in La Jolla. Hunter was in the kids’ wheelchair race as well as the “Tour de Cove” as he joined hundreds of athletes—disabled and able-bodied alike—in this year’s triathlon. According to the event’s official website, the race raised nearly $1.3 million to “get challenged athletes back in the game of life.”
MULTIMEDIA: The annual Challenged Athletes Foundation Triathlon helps raise money and awareness for disabled athletes. This year’s event featured San Diego Padres announcer Dick Enberg as a master of ceremonies.
Getting around better is only one benefit from the wheelchairs Hunter has received through Challenged Athletes.
“It was interesting to see the change in Hunter’s confidence once he received the BOX wheelchair,” Pochop said. “Just going from the landing in our house to the garage, he used to really balance and be very timid going over it.”
Now she says Hunter crosses the threshold with no trouble at all.
The Challenged Athletes Foundation is able to assist many kids like Hunter. In partnership with prosthetic manufacturer and design company Ossur, the Foundation regularly holds mobility clinics to help kids learn how to adapt to their new equipment.
MULTIMEDIA: This mobility clinic, sponsored by prosthetic company Ossur, gives training and even equipment to disabled children so they can be physically active.
Social media standout
If you can’t find Hunter participating in Challenged Athletes events, look to social media: His following consists of 683 likes on Facebook and about 2,300 followers on Instagram. His parents said his social media profiles aren’t meant to expose him as a challenged athlete. Instead, the main reason behind Hunter’s online presence is to raise and spread awareness of spina bifida. Jacqueline said when Hunter was first diagnosed with the disease 19 weeks in utero, positive support was hard to find.
“When we looked online, all we saw was scary stuff,” Pochop said. “We didn’t see that when your child gets older he’s going to do basketball and all this other stuff.
“So we thought if we can show parents that are having kids now that ‘look at what there is for your child. They’re not going to have a bad life.”
Hunter’s parents do all of the posting on the sites and his dad, Pete, said he sees some of Hunter’s Instagram photos being shared globally. He knows Hunter’s profile is contributing to raising awareness for spina bifida.
“The Facebook and Instagram are just to raise awareness and for people to see that it doesn’t matter,” Jacqueline said. “And we’re not going to sit at home and do nothing. We’re tired because he keeps us so busy.”
Hunter’s generosity and involvement in organizations such as Peach’s Neet Feet tell the story of a child who is so much more than just a challenged athlete. His mentor, James, says if Hunter keeps going the way he is, he’ll be a mentor himself as he continues to grow.
“I think he’s going to be a pretty great role model and icon in the future for like-minded peers,” Sa said.
He is, after all, The Unstoppable Porkchop.