Tasha Schuh ’03 | Inspirational Speaker & Author
Alumni from Ellsworth, WI
B.A. in Communication Studies
“Everyone has something, some struggles in their life, and it’s so rewarding at the end of the day to hear how my story has impacted people’s lives.”
Alumna Tasha Schuh has come a long way from her high school self, but she developed and matured while also overcoming physical disabilities and emotional struggles resulting from a traumatic accident. As Tasha told her story, it was hard to imagine the depressed teenager who wanted to die rather than be in a wheelchair, when the young woman she is now, is so effervescent and in love with her life and people in general. But that’s why her story of overcoming obstacles and making a full life for herself is so inspiring— she has been through dark times and despair. And Tasha believes we all have the capacity in ourselves to press through, remain hopeful and make a difference in our lives and the lives of others.
What were the circumstances of your accident?
I was really involved with my high school theater program and I was standing on stage helping with a scene change when they removed the cover off a trap door directly behind me without me knowing it. I took a step backward and fell 16 feet onto a cement floor, breaking my neck and nearly severing my spinal cord. It was the last place I would have ever thought to get injured–I was kind of a wild teenager and there were lots of places where I could have easily gotten hurt—and it was a very freak accident. But so many wonderful things have come from it that I wouldn’t change it.
So you wouldn’t consider this accident a tragedy?
At the time, it was a horrible tragedy. I thought my life was over; I wanted to die. I was one month away from turning 17, a time in your life when you are dreaming of all the possibilities and all the good things that are going to come to you. Ellsworth is a small town of about 3,000 people and it was a very shocking thing for our whole community. And I’m sure everybody thought my life was over. What would I be able to accomplish? It’s been fun proving myself and others wrong, though it was never single day when I was suddenly ok with it; it was a roller coaster up and down.
The first thing that happened was in the week after my accident I had several surgeries and developed double pneumonia, septic shock and a fever of 108 degrees. My body crashed and I actually went into a coma for eight days. The doctors told my family there was no way I was going to survive. And when I did, I was mad at first because I had been ready to die—I did not want a life limited by disabilities—so when I woke up I felt like I’d missed my way out. But then I thought, “Wait a minute; that must mean that I’m supposed to be here.” On the really tough days, that idea kept coming back to me, that if I wasn’t supposed to be here I would’ve died either from the fall itself or the medical complications. I just never would have imagined that my life would have turned around so much, that someday I would come back here to get the Distinguished Young Alumni award. I am so thankful that I held on and pressed through the dark times because I would have missed the best time of my life. I would have never known all that I have on the inside of me or how my stubbornness would someday pay off.
Why did you pursue a career as a speaker?
I lived at the Ronald McDonald House for a month before moving back to Ellsworth and that was so eye-opening. I know it’s normal in those circumstances, but I was very depressed, and seeing these kids with terminal illnesses smiling and laughing just shook my world. I realized that life is what you make it. My lifespan is the same as any other average human being, and if these kids who were going to die could be happy, then I could be depressed about my situation or I could move on and make a difference. I decided to do something with my life.
I started speaking here at Winona State in a special education class taught by Dr. Rocko. Since I have a disability, it was very appropriate that I should speak there, but that was in my sophomore year and my story was not all that inspiring. I came to WSU just two years after the accident, so it was still new to me and I hadn’t really accomplished anything yet, but people were so touched and moved by my story. I was really nervous and had no idea what I was going to say, but I loved speaking in front of the class. I’d always wanted to help people and I’ve accomplished so much since then, including figuring out a way to share all the things that I have overcome. Speaking and sharing my story is now my greatest passion.
What is your favorite part about being a public speaker?
Everyone has something, some struggles in their life, and it’s so rewarding at the end of the day to hear how my story has impacted people’s lives. I get messages on Facebook from kids who were cutting and contemplating suicide or they have abuse at home and now they see that it’s worth it to hold on. There are so many devastating stories. These kids have gone through so much and feel so purposeless, so hopeless, and to hear them say at the end, “I’m going to hold on because you held on”—there is nothing better than that.
Of course, I would never have imagined that my life could have turned around so much, but that allows me to share my story with other people because there’s just so much hopelessness in the world. You turn on the TV and everything is so negative and fearful that you just forget that there is so much good going on. I learned last week that the suicide rate is about 3,000 people committing suicide per day and that just breaks my heart because I know what that feels like, how dark it can get that you feel like that would be the best option. It’s really up to us to change the negativity in the world and to press through in our lives. That’s why I do what I do; it fuels the passion in me all the more to continue speaking out. There’s nothing that I would rather be doing and it’s been so awesome.
What do you want people to gain from your presentation?
My greatest passion now and the idea I want people to take away is that there is always hope because it’s so easy to get caught up in how negative the present is. I just want to help them realize they have so much to be looking forward to and have so much excitement of what is yet to come. I always speak about purpose, attitude and hope but I always close with hope, and I always say that the best is yet to come. I held onto that through some very difficult things—and not just at the beginning, even in recent years. I’d gotten my heart broken, I had some medical issues and I was just feeling hopeless, almost back to square one. I was like, “Ok, you tell people to hold on and tell people to have a positive attitude so you’ve got to practice it even when it’s difficult.” And I began to say “The best is yet to come.” Every time I had a hopeless thought. I even wrote it on my mirrors with erasable marker and still have it there to this day to remind me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Now, I have an amazing husband who makes married life easy, my book came out, and I was crowned Miss Wheelchair USA– all these things happened within the following year of wanting to give up. And I just think, “Wow, if I had given up, if I hadn’t believed the best was yet to come, where would I be today?” So whatever group it is— I speak from prisons to high schools to organizations to churches–my message is still the same: “Have hope because the best is yet to come.”
Who has influenced you most in your life?
I’ve had so many people who have influenced me, so this is a very difficult question, but I guess I would have to say my parents. Both of my parents came from dysfunctional homes, yet instead of falling into that same cycle they were determined to raise me and my siblings differently. My parents owned a grocery store for 23 years and were the hardest workers I’ve ever known. They taught us to be hard workers too, instilling in us a foundation to be successful in life. Not only did they teach me the value of hard work, but they also taught me the power of my actions.
My parents were quite strict, especially my mom, but today I am so thankful as they stopped me from making many poor choices when I was not smart enough to see the consequences. They also taught my siblings and I that we were not quitters; once we started something we had to finish it, even though things weren’t always easy. For example, I had gone out for my high school basketball team and ended up sitting the bench. I wanted to quit because I was not getting playtime, but my parents wouldn’t let me. They told me that I did not have to go out next year, but because I had started the season I was going to finish it. This really helped me when I had my accident, because I really wanted to quit on life. I wanted to give up and not press through, but because my parents instilled this into my life for years, I knew that quitting was not an option. Now, I am so glad because I absolutely love my life and am so glad that I persevered and overcame my obstacles!
If you could invite anyone to sit on this bench and have a conversation, who would it be and what would you talk about?
There are so many, but my first response is Jesus because I look at his life and what a difference he made in the world. Of course, we all have so many questions about this life and for me, in the beginning I so often asked “Why?” Now I don’t because I am so thankful that this did happen, but there’s still all these other questions we have about life that don’t just fit the way they should. I feel like Jesus has had the greatest impact even though he lived 2,000 years ago and he was out talking, essentially being a public speaker, for only three years. I’ve learned so much from his leadership and I love people who made a difference in this world.
Interviewed and Edited by Elizabeth Meinders ’15 and photographed by Anna Rae Butler ’15
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