“The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this knows what it means to live. He has penetrated the whole mystery of life: Giving thanks for everything.” Dr. Albert Schweitzer
1991 – Auburn University – Montgomery, Alabama: Allison sat alone in her dorm room feeling sorry for herself. “My life was fertile ground for pessimism,” she recalls. “I whined and complained occasionally, sometimes for a week at a time.” Allison often bartered with God, promising to stop whining and complaining if she could just be like other people.
On this particular day, Allison thought about her close friends. None of them seemed really happy. She had an epiphany. Her happiness was not dependent on her circumstances. It was a choice. That revelation gradually took root and it changed Allison’s life.
Allison Wetherbee was born to Charlie and Gloria Wetherbee in Camden, Alabama, in 1970. Looking forward to a wonderful Christmas with their new baby, the new parents were shocked when their baby was born with no arms or legs. Allison had a rare condition known as quadrilateral tetra-amelia.
The Wetherbees struggled with the how and why of their unimaginable situation. But, because their baby rarely cried and seemed happy, they made the decision to proceed with life as usual.
During the summers Allison attended the Alabama Special Camp for Adults and Children (ASCCA) at Lake Martin, Alabama, where she met other children with special needs. At age 15, after attending the camp for three summers, Allison got a job in the camp public relations office. She realized being on the camp staff was what she wanted to do with her life. Allison attended her high school prom, had the senior annual dedicated to her and graduated from Wilcox Academy in Camden to a long, loud standing ovation.
In August 1989, Allison’s parents dropped her off at Auburn University in Montgomery. It was a scary, lonely experience for her. She worried about how she would get along with her new live-in attendant and how other students would react to her. Allison wondered if she could pass the courses. Her fears were groundless. She became an inspiration to students and faculty alike. Allison made the Dean’s List every semester and graduated in May 1996 with a master’s degree in mental health counseling.
When applying for her first job as a mental health therapist at Riverbend Center for Mental Health in Russellville, Alabama, Allison showed up for the interview without telling the boss about her disability. “It was not meant to be deceptive,” said Allison, “but who I had become. I was not going to be defined by my disability.”
Impressed with her confidence and positive attitude, Riverbend offered Allison the job. Later, when a co-worker suggested that Allison consider an assisted living facility near the office, she blurted out, “Oh no, I couldn’t do that. Those places are for people with serious disabilities.”
Allison purchased her first house and lived independently with the aid of an attendant who took care of her basic needs, prepared her meals, did her laundry and drove her to work each day. She prominently placed signs in the house that served as a reminder that our attitude is always a choice.
One prominent sign stated, “NO WHINING!” Located above the kitchen sink was the message “It is a wonderful life,” and on the kitchen door, Allison’s favorite sign read, “There is always, always, always something to be thankful for.”
Allison worked at Riverbend for 11 years before landing her dream job as the Director of Public Relations at Camp ASCCA in 2007. Allison worked at the camp for seven years, until she died unexpectedly in her sleep in July 2016. She was 45.
Three days later, hundreds of people gathered at the Camden Baptist Church to celebrate her remarkable life. Allison Wetherbee’s decision to find something to be thankful for in every situation and circumstance inspired all who knew her.