When the crowd favorite at the Kentucky Derby Festivals Spring Fashion show hits the runways to delighted shrieks, he can hear the roar… with the help of a hearing aid. Kurt Roberson, model, actor and basketball player was born almost completely deaf. With his hearing aid, he can hear faint sounds, but he relies on lip reading to understand what people are saying. And, unlike many with his level of impairment, he can answer out loud. Many people dont realize that the strikingly handsome six-foot-two Tennessee native is deaf. In fact, his own family didnt realize until he was three years old.
“When I was two years old and sitting too close to the TV, my mother called my name three times, then threw a toy to get my attention and I didnt respond,” Kurt says. Concerned, she took him to the doctor who ran tests and discovered he was deaf. Next, he was taken to the audiologist, fitted for hearing aids and placed in a school with mentally and physically disabled kids. “My mother felt it wasnt the right placement for me, so she went to the board of education and fought for a better placement,” he says. “My mother has always been a strong advocate for me even though she was young. She came to an agreement to mainstream me into a regular school and implement speech therapy three times a week at the young age of three.” In therapy, Kurt developed his speech despite his inability to hear himself. That enabled him to blend with the hearing world, but it also isolated him in a sense. “Growing up, I was always around the hearing community,” Kurt says. “It was good in some ways, but it was also hard. Some kids were mean. I had a very small group of friends…. I played a lot of video games.”
Then, at fifteen, two life turning points occurred. “My mom brought me into a modeling agency and this guy had me get up on the stage and walk. “I did what I normally do,” says Kurt. “I strutted down the runway and he was amazed that I had natural talent. My mother couldnt afford the school but he told us not to worry about it and signed me up.” And, one day, while shooting hoops in the local gym, a team across the floor motioned to him. “They said, Are you deaf? And I said, Yes. And they couldnt believe it. They recruited me to play on the team which was part of the national league of deaf teams,” he says. While Kurt was a star starter on his high school team, joining a team of deaf players that was part of a national organization was especially meaningful. “The basketball league is where I really learned to live in both worlds-- the deaf world and the hearing world,” he says. “I had to relearn sign language. It taught me to straddle both worlds.”
Kurt slips in and out of both worlds effortlessly building a successful modeling career here in Louisville with Heyman Talent (which began when a former girlfriend sent his Facebook photos) and establishing a weekly sign language class for hearing and non-hearing students at the Calvary Chapel in La Grange. His worlds collide in his first movie role in an upcoming Emilio Estevez film in which he shares the screen with no other than Alec Baldwin. He landed the role when a friend heard that Estevez, who was filming in the area, was looking for a deaf actor for a cameo: “I sent in an audition video and three days later, I got an email telling me where to show up. I didnt believe it was real.” During his first day on set, he had to sign in the scene he shot with Alec Baldwin. “I dont sign every day and suddenly there were all of these people watching me do it,” he says. “It was weird. I felt like a celebrity.” And, apparently, he did okay. His small cameo turned into two scenes. “I got to die on screen,” laughs Kurt.
His experience with moviemaking has inspired him to pursue more acting opportunities and get more involved with Deafinite Models, a modeling and talent agency in Los Angeles that helps deaf talent achieve their dreams. “Of course, Kurt has already achieved quite a few. “I cant explain how it felt to be cast in a movie. I met Gabrielle Union… It was crazy. It was a blessing. And it makes me want to work harder to be a role model.”
When you look at nineteen-year-old University of Kentucky sophomore Emily Dawson, you see a beautiful survivor. The prosthetic leg she walks, dances and works out on is a visual reminder of the battle she fought with a rare type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma. But its also a symbol of her strength and determination.
While most girls her age were worrying about friend drama or the latest pimple, at the age of fifteen Emily was coping with an out-of-nowhere cancer diagnosis. “It was right before Christmas and my brother and I were playing by the tree and I fell and broke my leg,” Emily says. “At first, my parents thought I was being a drama queen.” The next day, when she woke up and couldnt move, they wound up getting her an MRI and hearing the unthinkable news. “We were supposed to go on a cruise and, instead, I started doing chemotherapy,” she says. “Things immediately changed for my family.” Her parents were splitting their time between the house and the hospital and her three younger siblings were obviously coping with the news too. “My younger brother was terrified hed get cancer,” she says. “It was hard on everyone.”
One thing that raised her spirits that year was when she was released early from one hospital stay to attend the Dance Blue dance-a-thon. “Seeing all of those college students working to raise money for cancer was really inspiring,” she says. “They dont just dance but they work all year fundraising. Just knowing they give so much of their time and energy to fighting cancer was really meaningful to me.” During her treatment, she became close friends with some of the Dance Blue members and, over time, started getting involved.
While her tumor initially shrank, it eventually spread and she learned shed have to have surgery in 2015. “My parents and I got the news together. One thing that helped through all of it was that they didnt try to hide things,” she says. Because of the position of the tumor, Emily was told that shed have to have her leg removed above the knee, unless she chose a relatively new procedure called a rotationplasty in which the foot is reattached at the knee joint. “Our surgeon and doctors didnt sugarcoat anything,” she says. “They also didnt pressure me into making any crazy decisions and let me come to the decision on my own.”
“It would mean that not only was I going to look different, but I was going to look different from other amputees,” says Emily. “It was a tough decision, but my parents helped me come to terms with it and ultimately they let me make the call myself. By doing that, I could be a below-the-knee amputee which would give me more mobility. So thats what I chose. In the end, due to complications, it turned out to be six surgeries on my leg and about twelve surgeries total for me, so it wasnt easy. But it was the right decision for me.”
The resolve it took to choose a ground-breaking surgery is the same kind of resolve that has allowed Emily to enter college on schedule, choose a major in hospital business (“I spent so much time there I have a unique perspective.”) and dance all night as a member of her winning dance team in this years Dance Blue. (Although she is quick to say that the marathon involved more line dancing and standing around than actual dancing. “I wouldnt quite call myself a dancer!”) As special as she is, she embraces doing the kind of ordinary everyday activities of a typical college student—working at Steel City pops, walking across campus and working out with friends in the gym a few times a week. “I know not everyone survives cancer, but I did,” she says. “What I learned from going through it is to make every day count.”
Some people would see a cancer diagnosis as a reason to slow down. Lara McGregor used it as a catalyst to change her life, start a thriving non-profit and spread a message of hope to other people living with the disease.
She was thirty years old and pregnant with her second child when she received the news that she had breast cancer. After coping with a newborn, chemotherapy and recovery, Lara, who had spent a decade in nonprofit fundraising, made a decision inspired by the gift of a scarf and a heartfelt message from a friend: “I said, I know what Im going to do. Im going to start a non-profit,” she says. “Im going to share scarves and notes of encouragement with other cancer patients.” The organization which she named Hope Scarves began in a spare bedroom with a handful of volunteers and soon became an Ignite Louisville project which meant that a team of Ignite participants had to create a marketing campaign to promote their mission. “And one day, one of the project coordinators looked at me and said, Dont be offended. But is this a little project you do in your spare bedroom in your spare time or is this going to be a national non-profit? There is no wrong answer, but only you can decide. I thought, Its go time. And I quit my tennis team and devoted myself to it full time.”
Five years and more than 6,000 scarves later, Hope Scarves has delivered their colorful care packages to patients all over the country with all different types of cancer. The scarves, all donated by other cancer patients, all come with their carefully chronicled stories of other lives and patients theyve touched. “Our database is what makes us really special,” says Lara. “We work very hard to keep track of where the scarves have been and who has worn them. We are dedicated to telling these stories.”
A recent diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer has only deepened that dedication. “I had my very dark moments after the diagnosis. I got angry and very down, but I fought through it,” she says. “It made me reflect on the organization and where I want to take it. And I want it to take it to a truly national level.” She is determined, while she has a good quality of life, to do everything she can to make that happen. “Im trying to do more public speaking. Im partnering with as many hospitals as I can.” (Hospitals in several states stock collections of scarves for patients.) This spring, she also launched the first special edition scarf created with Echo Designs of New York ($32 at hopescarves.org) in an effort to raise more funds for breast cancer research and reach a broader audience.
While she works tirelessly as founder, visionary, marketer, spokesperson of Hopes Scarves, she is also carefully watching her work life balance, leaving the day after our interview for an annual family trip to her home state of Michigan with her two young sons. (Her husband would meet up with her in Europe the following week.) “I have been around cancer long enough to understand what the metastatic diagnosis means,” she says. “I want to make the most of my time… I surround myself with joyful people. I make sure I take trips and see family and create memories with my sons and husband.”
But she is also determined to create something larger than herself. “I want to build this into a national organization with a solid infrastructure that can support that kind of outreach. I will consider it to be a real success when Im appearing on The Today Show,” she laughs. “Right now, Im feeling good, but I do have a little bit of a sense of urgency. I would like to see Hope Scarves be a gift to as many people as possible. I want it to be my legacy.”
Having worked over two decades for the YMCA—most recently as Executive Director of the downtown branch-- and been a lifelong runner, Dave Bell was always the slim, fit picture of health. Like many men, one evening two years ago, he dismissed a searing stomach ache as “something I ate,” even when the pain became so severe that he lay awake writhing in pain all night—eventually moving downstairs to the couch so as not to disturb his wife or sleeping sons. When the pain only increased over the next several hours, he made a call to a doctor friend who encouraged him to go to the ER. “So, I drove myself to the ER,” he says. “My wife had to stay with our sons, so I just hopped in the car and drove.” That trip revealed a ruptured appendix which led to surgery which led to a CT scan which led to the discovery of colon cancer.
“I had come home a few days after the appendectomy and I was getting all of these calls from the hospital,” says Bell. “I thought they were just those follow-up calls to see how my stay was and, I admit, I didnt answer them.” Finally, after countless calls, he finally decided to pick up the phone. It was his doctor. “She wanted me to come into her office,” says Bell. “I knew that wasnt good.” When he shared this development with the same doctor friend, she offered to read his file if he gave her permission. He did. And the next phone call he received was the one that changed his life.
“I was in my kitchen and she asked me, Are you sitting down? So, I sat down at the kitchen table. And she said, You have colon cancer. And there I was, with my sons playing on the floor and my wife in the next room and my whole world was rocked.”
Over the next few months, there was surgery “to remove a large section of my large intestine” and recovery and then, remarkably, a heart attack in 2016. “I was driving my oldest son, Sam, to school and I felt a shooting pain in my left arm,” he says. “I just drove myself to the hospital again and they sent me straight into surgery and I had two stints put in.”
And, at that point, there was a decision that it was time for a meaningful life change. To live a life less stressful and more purposeful. “I decided that I wanted to go to work in jeans and I wanted to work someplace where I could make a difference,” says Bell.
It was around then that he saw an ad for a job for a marketing coordinator for the Colon Prevention Project. “I thought, Well, Im a survivor, I know nonprofits, this is fate,” he says. He sent in his resume and received no response, but followed up shortly after. “They told me they hadnt called because I was overqualified, but it turned out that the director who was on maternity leave, wasnt coming back: Would I be interested in that job?” Bell was and has been the Colon Prevention Project Director since September 2016.
“I mean what are the odds that I would get colon cancer and that an organization I had never heard of would need somebody with my skill set to promote colon cancer awareness?” asks Bell. “I feel incredibly fortunate.”
His new job has given him the opportunity to wear denim every day (sometimes with a bow tie), spend more time with his three young sons and make sure other men and women become more proactive about their health and colon cancer prevention. “I am making it my mission to make it easier to talk about this subject and our mission is to eliminate preventable death and suffering from colon cancer.”