For the George family, there wasn’t supposed to be hope for their newborn son, who was born with a half-functioning heart that was unable to pump blood throughout his tiny body. Today, at 21 years of age, John Paul George lives a full life, defying all odds.
Q. In your book, Heart of a Lion, you discuss your many blessings and your goal to “pay it forward.” How do you plan to do that?
There’s no doubt that my life is a miracle, and without the divine intervention of God I would not be here—my life is a gift and a blessing. I often wonder how I can pay forward my blessings to others; I truly believe it is by being myself. I am a simple young man, but God made me special. God has commissioned me with my life to share hope through my story. Recently my parents and I were doing a book signing when an elderly lady who had already purchased the book came back with her husband. She said my story was such an inspiration that she wanted to buy another copy to share with a friend who was suffering with terminal cancer—she saw my story as a source of hope. I see myself reaching my goal by sharing my story and encouraging others to renew their hope and put their trust in God. Whether I am called to give a presentation, speak to the media, or just to be with others, I’ll offer my experience of persevering with daily challenges and of finding happiness in each moment.
Q. How’s college life? What is your greatest joy as you embark on this new chapter?
College life is awesome. Just the day-to-day experiences on campus is such a positive experience. Coming from a homeschool environment, I wasn’t sure how I would adapt, not only to a classroom setting but also to being around so many people. Thankfully, the transition has been easy and fulfilling. In my short time in college, I’ve learned a great deal, not so much book knowledge
(no worries, Mom and Dad, I’m good), but life knowledge. Being able to interact with young people my age allows me to be a part of the vibe of my generation, and I enjoy that. My greatest challenge has really become my biggest asset. Because of my size, I still get a great deal of looks and questions. However, this allows me to share my story of hope and encourage others. We all have issues, but we can’t let them set boundaries or fence us in. My greatest joys are twofold. Recently I was accepted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society [the oldest honor society for the liberal arts and sciences]. Needless to say, I was pretty excited and honored. I joke with my parents that I’m now in an Animal House fraternity. My second joy is that I am able to be an example to others. I don’t say that boastingly but rather as fulfilling God’s purpose with my life.
Q. You’ve mentioned an interest in becoming a priest. What inspires you?
Faith is and always has been deeply rooted in my life. I believe I’ve been spared for a certain reason. From an early age, I’ve had vivid dreams of the Eucharist, Jesus, and our Lady. As I’ve gotten older, the desire to become a priest still lingers. I believe the underlying inspiration comes from my faith and devotion. My greatest reward will be to minister to people, especially youth. I feel my unique condition offers me the ability to identify with youth and the many obstacles they face today, from bullying to social issues. And I can help them carry their faith and beliefs through all stages of their life. God is challenging me to pick up my cross and follow him into the most sincere devotion of helping others.
Q. How do you maintain an exemplary positive attitude despite your struggles?
First and foremost, I credit my positive attitude to God and my faith. God offers hope in my life, and that hope gives me a positive attitude. Prayer keeps me positive. I constantly have people telling me that they pray for me; these prayers provide me with self-assurance that leads to a great attitude. My parents are my biggest role models. I have watched them navigate through not only my issues but also the issues that many families face. They always try to remain upbeat and proactive, and that attitude filters down to me. Two other things contribute to my positivity: laughter and music. I believe in the old saying; laughter is the best medicine. Anyone who knows me will tell you I love to laugh. Certain songs also make me feel optimistic. Recently I had the chance to meet my favorite band, Imagine Dragons. I shared my story and gave them a copy of my book. I really like this band because of their upbeat songs, especially “I’m on Top of the World.” That’s the way I feel. I’m blessed to be in this world and definitely feel on top of the world.
ANNETTE AND DEREK:
Q. What is your greatest reward in seeing John Paul’s spiritual and emotional growth?
It was our desire to provide John Paul with a strong foundation of faith in his youth and to lead by example to encourage his positive spiritual growth. One of the rewards of John Paul’s spiritual growth is how he’s brought God so deeply back into the lives of people of all faiths. A diverse group of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others have offered up prayers for our son, strengthening his spirituality by uniting in prayer for his life. Yesterday while shopping, we saw a parish family member who is a eucharistic minister. The lady looked at John Paul and asked if he was going to be a eucharistic minister soon. John Paul smiled and told her he was thinking about it. She said that if anyone was filled with the Holy Spirit and should be a eucharistic minister, it was definitely John Paul. John Paul’s spirituality shines in ways that are beyond his own realization. As years have passed, it is now John Paul who quietly leads by example. That is the greatest reward for us.
Emotional growth was a bit trickier. For a major part of his life, only immediate family members, Derek, and I surrounded John Paul. It’s obvious that he led a sheltered life in hopes of staying healthy. Therefore, many of the interactions outside of the family that promote positive emotional growth were absent or less frequent in John Paul’s life. This is where we, as parents feel we are blessed. The empathy and compassion he has for others are innate. John Paul has taught us that faith and love have no boundaries; to love one another deeply; to humble ourselves; and to see life as a special gift and to never take anything for granted.
Q. What general and spiritual advice would you offer parents raising a child with a disability?
Our best advice to such parents comes from John Paul: “I can’t change who I am, but I can change the world as I am.” His words provide a profound message to parents of children with special needs to never let their children be hindered by boundaries. Heart of a Lion: A Story of God’s Grace and a Family’s Hope offers each reader a special dose of hope. Hope cultivated by faith is an important asset in dealing with the day-to-day challenges. Our additional advice is to be an advocate for your child. Pay attention to the doctor’s wisdom, but don’t be afraid to ask questions of him or her. And when in doubt, do research. Parents have a natural ability to sense what their child needs. Don’t be afraid to voice it.
Q. How has John Paul changed your life, specifically your faith?
What would life be like without John Paul? A student at a middle school posed that question. We are unable to answer because, without John Paul, we wouldn’t be able to truly identify how important life is, how important love is, and how important gratitude is. John Paul has enhanced and blessed our life by simply being with us. His devotion to his faith strengthens our devotion; his willpower challenges us to never give up; his acceptance of his condition as his cross to bear encourages us to remain positive and always search for the glimmer of hope.
Recently we received a text from a doctor who had just started reading Heart of a Lion. She stated that, for some reason, she began reading from the back of the book, which reflects John Paul’s sentiments. A summary of the doctor’s thoughts reinforce how John Paul has enhanced our faith:
“Considering all he has been through, the peace that John Paul lives with is impressive. He is convinced that everything that comes from God is for a good reason and is good. When God creates you different from everyone else, he extends a valuable gift that makes your life more meaningful and special. God helps you feel you’re in a special relationship with him, which gives you strength and the ability to appreciate life differently from everyone else. God gives you a chance to share with him a unique experience and a feeling of closeness to him.”