Surmounting Obstacles with a Smile: Speaks with the Inspirational Craig Yunker

Craig Yunker graduated from Northwestern University in 2010 with a master's degree in counseling psychology. He was the first quadriplegic to graduate from Northwestern's Graduate School. caught up with him to find out how he's overcome the obstacles in his life, and what he's doing next.

By Megan Driscoll

Craig Yunker, graduation You recently graduated from Northwestern with a master's degree in counseling psychology. What was your previous educational experience, and how did you become interested in counseling?

Craig Yunker: I earned my bachelor's in Business and Management Information Systems (MIS) from the University of Illinois in Urbana in 2001, just as all of the IT jobs were being outsourced. However, I became interested in counseling, not because I didn't want to move to India, but because I had nightmares of my sad, sorry epitaph reading something like, 'Here lies Craig Yunker, database administrator.' I've always been a 'people person,' so I wanted - needed - to find a career where I could matter to others more than that.

I come from a long line of teachers and mentors, so I think the desire to do this type of work is in my genes. But the importance of counseling was painfully seared into my soul when my beloved father died of cancer when I was fifteen. That was the most disabling event in my life because his absence left my mother severely depressed and me, in a sense, orphaned. Unfortunately, my mother and I did not seek therapy after his death, which made that experience even more painful and debilitating. So I chose counseling because it seemed a healthy and natural expression of my gifts and passion to work with teens in similar circumstances. After all, with so many broken families around, someone has to help kids who are trying to raise themselves. The work is not easy, but it's important! It may sound funny, but it's true: It takes more than puberty to turn a boy into a man. You overcame a lot of adversity in your studies. As a quadriplegic, it took you eight years to complete the normal course load and clinical work to earn the degree. What was that experience like?

CY: It was the most challenging and rewarding thing I've ever done. But long before I broke my neck, I (usually) tried to do what's best, not what's easiest. Here's one of my goofy sayings: 'Don't take the path of least-resistance in life! It almost always leads downhill.'

Still, when I matriculated into the program, I was totally unprepared for many of the challenges I would face, and quickly became overwhelmed by them. Initially, the biggest challenge was learning how to 'put away' my own issues, so that I could attend to the needs of my clients. This is no easy task for someone who spends eight to ten hours per day directing others to help him get in and out of bed, shower, etc.

Because I'm the first quadriplegic on record to earn a degree from Northwestern's Graduate School, no one, myself included, was prepared for the challenges that were set before me. Along with the 'normal' struggles that my classmates faced, I had to deal with ridiculous stressors from caregivers, broken wheelchairs, 22 hours of pain and two hours of sleep per day, an infected sore that nearly required my leg to be amputated - the list goes on and on. While I kept these issues from my clients, I'm sure some of my classmates and professors felt I was 'getting too personal' if I shared my problems with them. They may have been right, but this is a quadriplegic's reality! So who wouldn't have trouble putting these things away?

Regardless, I had to learn to manage my personal issues like every other therapist in training. Thankfully, my advisor, Dr. Blum, acknowledged the enormity of my challenges and gave me the space, time and (at times stern) inspiration I needed to address them, while holding me to the same expectations as everyone else. In the end, she helped me meet these expectations and discover some valuable related talents. So I graduated knowing I was a damn-good clinician and deserving of my degree. That is what made my experience so rewarding. Although they were, presumably, of a different nature, do you feel that your own struggles made you more empathetic to those of your counseling clients? Without violating your client confidentiality, are there any particular moments you can share that speak to this experience?

CY: To be honest, there were times when my struggles seemed so overwhelming that it was difficult to be empathetic to my client's problems, but those times were rare. In general, my shattered existence (e.g. going from beloved son to orphan, state-champion bodybuilder to quadriplegic, male stripper to youth pastor, etc.) gave me an appreciation of what I call the 'uniqueness of the human experience,' and this was of tremendous value in counseling my clients!

For instance, one of my clients was an obese homosexual African American. While I don't fit any of those demographics, I think my own struggles made me more aware of some of the deeper issues that were involved in his. This man has such a beautiful soul! And I hope that my efforts to piece together my own life gave me some insight on how to help him do the same. If that's the case, then my struggles were worth it and I wouldn't change a thing. Many people would see a physical condition like yours as an insurmountable obstacle. What inspired you to have the strength to persevere and pursue your goals?

CY: First, when my father was terminally ill I promised him I'd make him proud. That will always be my pursuit and that promise is the source of endless inspiration for me.

But let's 'keep it real' here! At times I lack the inspiration and strength to roll over in bed, so I could see how others would think my physical condition would be an insurmountable obstacle. I think the central issue here is one of perspective, and one thing I like to do is encourage people to broaden theirs. We all rely upon others in some way. Who do you know that refines their own gasoline? Also - and this is something that enrages me about the way people with disabilities are viewed in our society - why is so much attention paid to their physical condition and/or appearance, while their ability to survive, persevere and overcome obstacles is all but ignored?

Here I am speaking of people far more impressive and accomplished than I - many people with disabilities are masters at overcoming and adapting. In these tough times, you'd think such wisdom would be coveted. In fact, the opposite seems true.

Craig Yunker, Northwestern University In an article last summer in the Northwestern News, you mention that there are human 'angels' who have helped you along the way. Can you share one of those stories with our readers?

CY: With great pleasure! Although I have known many, the finest examples I can name are my Uncle Tom and Aunt Donna. We're not really related - my Uncle Tom met my father during their first teaching jobs after college. Uncle Tom quit teaching and became a prosperous businessman, but we have remained close even after my father died. Just over one year ago I was telling him about my struggles, but what I didn't tell him is that they were so severe I was haunted by suicidal dreams; I was in so much physical and psychic pain that I literally could not stand to be awake or asleep. I think somehow he knew. He also knew of my endeavors to earn my degree, help others and make dad proud, and he saw honor and value in that.

So the day after we talked I got a letter from him. It contained what I refer to as a 'shockingly-insignificant' check with a 'life-saving' sticky note attached to it. I call them that because while the check was very generous, enough to make the tax man and tuition lady go away . . . they came back! But it was the measure of belief written on the sticky note that saved my life. That note is framed on my desk, as a reminder of the book I want to write about his (and his wife's) love, generosity and support. It's entitled 'Everyone Needs an Uncle Tom,' and I endeavor to be one myself someday! People need to know of their potential to bless others and the effect it can have on them. I hope the book - and my life - can serve as an example. Granted that's a tall order, but also a reason for me to endure the arduous process of getting up each morning. What are your plans for your degree?

CY: I plan to push my joystick forward as far as it will go and see where my chair takes me. I'm done looking back at all the things that went wrong in my life! But I'm also careful to own my mistakes and not blame everything on the half-inch kink in my spinal cord.

Since I graduated last December, I've founded MoreAbled, Inc., with the help of my Uncle Tom. It's an organization devoted to addressing the needs of people with disabilities by viewing them from a person-centered, rather than disability-centered, perspective. Doing so frees them to identify and utilize their strengths and talents, like releasing a ship from its moorings. As an example, I mentioned earlier that the most disabling event in my life was not my spinal cord injury, but the death of my father. However, these two events combined with others to form quite a quagmire for me. But my experience of working through them and identifying my own abilities is what made me 'MoreAbled,' and is something I feel makes me uniquely qualified to help others do the same.

Using that as my business model, my company has access to an extraordinary group of consultants, including healthcare professionals, therapists with various specializations, experts in assistive/adaptive technologies and home modifications, financial and legal consultants and others. Together we can identify the most disabling issues in a person's life and mitigate them. To date, my most meaningful work has been with the Regional Transportation Authority of Chicago, where I'm developing initiatives that help seniors and people with disabilities use public transportation, including free presentations throughout the Chicagoland area that promote the benefits of accessible mass transit. This is an essential service to these populations because, as I often say in my presentations, 'The world will not come to you, so you must go to it!' After I broke my neck I spent four years in my basement staring at the wall, so trust me, I know that's true! What advice would you give someone who is also struggling with a disability and considering pursuing a college degree?

CY: Right or wrong, you are a member of the most stigmatized, shunned and therefore least understood minority there is. There will be many situations in which your wheelchair will be the proverbial pink elephant in the room. That being said, don't blame people for approaching you with reluctance, caution or curiosity. Hopefully, the following suggestions will help you overcome these obstacles, and even use them to your advantage.

First, remember this: People tend not to notice what they see often, yet what you try to hide soon becomes obvious. So find a subtle way of making your disability obvious, thereby letting others know it's okay to talk about. For instance, when people ask me how I'm doing, I'll occasionally paraphrase rapper Snoop Dog and say, 'Gimpin' ain't easy, but I'm fine. How are you?' Doing so opens the door for conversations about my disability, but doesn't force the issue.

Next, let people see other facets of you, like your dreams, hobbies and goals. This will help them see that you are like them - and unlike them - in many ways, just like everyone else.

Finally, know that you are probably stronger, wiser and more capable than anyone realizes, including yourself. But how? First answer that yourself, then find a way of conveying it to others before you pursue your degree. Sadly, some won't have the ability or desire to benefit from the gift of being in a relationship with you. Oh well, that's their loss. Roll on. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about your educational experiences and future plans.

CY: My education taught me a lot about who I am and what I'm capable of becoming. So with my Uncle Tom's help, I'll continue to serve those in need through my company and via a charity we'll be starting that will benefit our county's wounded veterans in the same manner.

I also want to fund a 'MoreAbled scholarship' along with the kind folks at the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities at Northwestern University. The recipient will be a Northwestern student with a disability who can best describe the abilities and strengths that they have developed in managing their unique challenges and the ways in which they plan on using these skills in the future. These people and their accomplishments need to be celebrated!

I also have a few books and movie scripts rattling around my head that I'm dying to put on paper. As far as my personal life, I'll continue to work with teens as my chief pastime and passion, and speak publicly about disability-related issues as I see them. Finally, I fell in love briefly last summer. I suppose that makes me more fortunate than most, but I would like to have that experience again.

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