Perseverance Pays Off

by Antonio Dowels
I never dreamed that I would someday win a national contest until this year. About two months ago, I was notified by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) that I was a winner of a new wheelchair accessible van. It still feels like a dream to me. I was one of four people selected out of 1,500 entrants and this blessing could not have come at a better time.
I entered this same contest last year and was so close to making the semifinals; however, I entered the contest during the final week and did not have enough time to get the required votes. I knew that if I had the entire eight weeks to garner votes, I would have easily made the semifinals. So I marked my calendar for this year's contest and created a detailed plan to get enough votes. I continued to focus on finishing my Sport Management degree, but the upcoming contest remained in my thoughts. 
I really needed a vehicle. In August, I will be heading down to Miami to start law school at St. Thomas University. I will be hundreds of miles away from family and will need a vehicle to go to doctor's appointments, grocery stores, speaking engagements and many other places. My goal is to be as independent as possible and go where I want, at any time I want. This would give me the great sense of independence, which I had lost after my injury. 
I knew that I had a great chance to win for two reasons. First, the contest was based on the number of online votes you receive during the eight week voting period. It was not like most contests, such as the lottery, where numbers or people are randomly picked. Once the voting period ends, the entrants who are in the top 10 percent in votes make the semifinals and their stories are then judged by a panel. Second, NMEDA stated that the winners would be people who were positive, volunteered, educated, advocated, achieved, and persevered despite their disability. I believed that I strongly embodied those qualities and the story that I wrote for my entry conveyed that. 
In early March, I submitted my story on NMEDA's contest site and implemented my plan of action. I promoted daily on social media. Many of my friends and even people I have never met before promoted it as well. It helped that I know well-known people in the sports industry. I had the coaches and players at the University of Florida and in the NFL get my story out to the masses (I wish Tim Tebow could have helped, but I unfortunately lost his number). I called news stations and newspaper companies to publicize my efforts and I was blessed to have had ABC Action News in Tampa and the Florida Sentinel cover my story. Also, my family and friends printed out thousands of flyers that I could pass out to people wherever I went. I went out every day in my power wheelchair to pass out the flyers. Even in the scorching heat, I was determined to run out of flyers by the end of the day! I spoke at high schools, churches and banquets about overcoming obstacles and I would always bring my flyers to encourage people to vote for me.
By the end of the voting period, I had over 25,000 votes and was in fourteenth place. Then I had to wait for three long weeks to be notified. I was expecting NMEDA to call me on Friday, May 30. On May 28, my mom called me and said that someone wanted to give me $5,000 on Friday. I thought the gesture was spectacular because I could use that money to pay for the van's sales tax if I were to win the contest. On Friday morning I drove to Ride-Away, thinking that I would simply be presented with a check. When I arrived, my family, ABC Action News anchor, Linda Hurtado and the CEO of NMEDA, Dave Hubbard darted out of the building. I was a bit confused, but excited about getting a check. Mr. Hubbard then told me that I was one of the contest winners and would be receiving a 2014 Toyota Sienna instead. My initial thought was that it was sad that I did not get the $5,000 check, but the elation about winning the van quickly replaced that thought. The day was a blur after that moment. All I remember is taking pictures in front of a van with my family and doing an interview. Like I stated before, it still feels like a dream.
My story is a testament that hard work, determination and setting goals will allow you to overcome any obstacle. You can do anything that you set your mind to. Winning this van will not be my last accomplishment. I plan to be successful so that I can help the underprivileged and I feel blessed and honored that I can inspire so many people while I continue to reach my goals. 
Lastly, I want to thank everyone who has helped me thus far! I appreciate everything you have done! I could not have done this without you!

A - Z Resource Center