Disability Awareness Month Local Hero Alex Montoya ‘Swings for the Fences’
Disability Awareness Month 2014 Honoree
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
It began with a simple twist of fate: a chance encounter between Alex Montoya's uncle, Frank Callahan, and Harvey Fitzhugh, a man wearing a red fez.
The two had never met before that weekend in 1978, when Callahan, an active-duty Marine moonlighting as a security guard in Vallejo, California, bumped into Fitzhugh and shared a cigarette. Callahan inquired about Fitzhugh's "funny hat" and soon discovered that Fitzhugh was a member of the Shriners, an organization best known for its hospitals that help children with orthopedic health issues.
"My uncle then said, ‘I have a two-year-old nephew in Medellín, Columbia who is a triple amputee and really needs help,'" Montoya explains. "Harvey arranged for me to visit the United States with my mother and get fit for prosthetics on both my arms and my right leg. By the time I reached age four, my parents made the decision that I should live in the U.S. with my aunt and uncle, in order to receive ongoing medical care and go to school. I've been here ever since."
Thanks to that fortuitous meeting 38 years ago, today Montoya, a 2014 Disability Awareness Month Local Hero, is a thriving member of the San Diego community. He is the Manager of Latino Affairs for the San Diego Padres, a published author, blogger and motivational speaker. He also is a sharp, upbeat kind of guy who, more than anything, considers himself blessed.
“My faith is the cornerstone of who I am and drives everything else," he says. "Helping me overcome my tough times, it really changed my perspective and outlook. I'm just very enthusiastic about life.”
Montoya has lived all his life as a triple amputee, a result of his mother, while pregnant, taking thalidomide, a medication known for causing birth defects in thousands of babies around the world. Yet, he has never been one to succumb to self-pity and lives by a simple rule.
"Focus on what you have and not on what you're missing," he says. "It's true for me physically and for everything I have in my life. You need to believe that the best is yet to come, and that good things are going to happen. It's easy for me to believe that because I've seen all my life when things look bleak, things turn around and get better. I'm a firm believer that none of these things would've happened in my life if it was for naught, and I believe that everything, including my uncle's encounter with Harvey, happens for a purpose."
Since childhood, Montoya’s goal has been to work in baseball, particularly for the San Diego Padres. Fifteen years ago, that dream came to fruition.
“I started out as an usher, just out of college, escorting people to their seats. After eight years, they invited me to work in the front office in a full-time position. When they were later looking for someone to really help them engage with the Hispanic community, they looked to me. I love my job and where I’m at today.”
Montoya, who loves to write has shared his story through the publication of two books, “Swinging for the Fences: Choosing to Live an Extraordinary Life” and “The Finish Line.”
“Swinging for the fences is a major phrase I live by, a metaphor for going for it all, having high goals,” Montoya explains. “It was my first book, published in 2008, and is an autobiographical story in which I share lessons that I've learned and hurdles I've overcome. The second book is about doing the 2010 San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon and what it took as a triple amputee to accomplish that.”
Montoya has a weekly blog he calls, “AMOtivational Mondays.” In it, he encourages readers to set high goals, fight doubts, dream the impossible “and always keep swinging!”
One of Montoya’s proudest achievements occurred in 1996 when he was a student at University of Notre Dame. He had the opportunity to carry the Olympic Torch for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
“The United Way was given the right by the Olympic Committee to choose the torchbearers, and the Shriners nominated me. There were 10,000 torches in all, but only one flame. I carried my torch in my college town in Indiana. It’s a very elaborate process, and for someone like me, they assigned a helper because the torch is heavy, about 10 lbs. I’ll never forget the experience.”
Montoya recognizes it takes great strength to push yourself to live your best life, particularly when you’re living with disabilities.
“What many people with disabilities lose sight of is how much they've overcome, and how much it’s taken just to live a normal everyday life,” he observes. “You remind them, 'Look, you've come this far, don't stop now.' They can do whatever they set their minds to. It really is key for them to have someone in front of them who has done that. They really need to see it's possible. That's why I go out. I say that with all humility and humbleness. My story can be a good example.”
Recently, Montoya spoke at the Monarch School for children who are homeless, and shared his message. A few days later, while walking downtown, a girl approached him and mentioned having heard his presentation.
“She couldn’t have been older than eighth grade,” Montoya recalls. “She reached into her bag and pulled out a picture on canvas that she had drawn. The caption read, ‘Alex Montoya, Big and Strong.’ I was moved, as no one had ever said that to me before. She explained, ‘You came and spoke at my school and I was really touched. I want to say thank you.’ I hugged her, for it struck me that this is a girl who's at the Monarch School, she's got all these challenges, and probably feels beat up about life. The fact that she's homeless, and has so much she has to deal with, yet she took time to thank me. To me, that said I motivated her to keep going, and know that things are going to be okay, and that she is going to be able to overcome her challenges.”
Montoya seems most in his element when talking about baseball. He even uses the sport to explain his philosophy on life.
“If a guy is at home plate and he's a batter, if he strikes out, he has to come back the very next day and keep swinging," he explains. "If he hits a home-run, he still has to come up the very next time and swing again. I like the fact that it’s very comparable to life. It doesn't matter whether you've had a great day or a horrible day, you've got to come back tomorrow and give it all you've got. That speaks to the American spirit, and why baseball is America's pastime. No matter what, you've got to keep swinging and proving yourself over and over again.”
To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.