“Hope it forward”. I love this counter-cultural idea that we’ve been given comfort, not just so we can be comfortable. We’ve been given hope, not just so we can be hopeful, but ultimately, so we can give those good things away to others in need. We’re afraid of losing. We’re entitled and want to keep the things we think we deserve. And yet we have the opportunity to open our hands and vulnerably offer what we’ve received to someone else who needs it. That whole-hearted offering is where the true healing begins!

For my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Wolf. Katherine is a survivor, storyteller and advocate. She and her husband, Jay, co-founded the non-profit HOPE HEALS to uplift those with broken bodies, broken brains, and broken hearts, including HOPE HEALS CAMP, a Summer camp community for families with disabilities. They also co-authored HOPE HEALS, the account of her near death and their new life, told from both of their perspectives. Their second book, “SUFFER STRONG: How to survive anything by redefining everything” releases February 2020. She currently resides in Atlanta with Jay and their two sons, James and John.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path.

I suppose there were many events that led me to today, but certainly the most life-changing was when I almost died at 26 years old. I was a healthy, newlywed with a 6 month old baby, and out of nowhere, without symptoms or warning, I suffered a massive brainstem stroke due to a rare brain malformation called an AVM. I should have died, but against all odds, I survived and even more miraculously, I have recovered, so much so that I had another baby 3 years ago!

Now, nearly 11 years after everything changed, I still live with major disabilities, but I’m living a flourishing, second chance life that I love. My husband, Jay, and I started a faith-based non-profit, called HOPE HEALS (and wrote a book about our story with the same name) to encourage anyone struggling to show up for a life they didn’t sign up for. In particular, we love cheering on families with special needs, like us, so much so we started a summer camp community, HOPE HEALS CAMP, to offer them rest, resources, and relationships, in order to experience perseverance, grit, and flourishing, like we have.

Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Perhaps the most pivotal moment in this journey was about 6 months after my stroke. I began truly waking up to the reality that my life would never be the same. It was just before the holidays, and not only could I barely walk or talk or even hold my head up as I sat in the wheelchair, but I could not even eat and had failed my 9th swallowing test. I looked at my husband and one year baby, James, and thought they would eventually be better off if I wasn’t here. Jay could remarry a “normal” woman and James could have a “normal” mommy. My survival was a mistake. And yet somehow in that moment of near-despair, I was overwhelmed by hope that my life was not an accident. I had been left here for purposes I never could have seen coming. And the question became, would I lean into this GOOD/HARD life and look for the treasure to be found in the dark places? And I did.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

My personality has always been woven through with a certain amount of grit. It’s certainly a combination of nature and nurture, but it’s not truly activated until real struggle comes. I severely broke my leg years ago and had to have a steel rod installed, after which some friends deemed, “the steel magnolia”, and that seemed to fit. I’d like to think I’m a combination of grit and grace. I’m from the deep South originally, but moved to California at 22 and grew up into adulthood there, so I’m grateful for that mix of southern, gentile perseverance with a bit of west coast adventurousness into the unknown.

Since a young age, I’ve been part of a loving faith community. Personally, my faith has evolved through questions and hardships into something quite gritty and beautiful itself. My faith fuels my perseverance and purpose. The individual, human spirit only goes so far. There’s no true perseverance without community, and I have been blessed with a “ride or die” husband whose unconditional love and grit fuels my own. I also have an incredibly supportive extended family, friend group and church community, and even an online community who have cheered me on, as I’ve cheered them on. Seeing how my perseverance has encouraged other people to engage and learn to love their own hard stories makes me want to keep going in my story. It’s a powerful cycle.

So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?

I love this idea that grit or perseverance leads to character development, which leads to hope. And hope is an invitation to live out a future reality in the present. That’s why we named our organization and our book and our camp, HOPE HEALS, to remind us that this kind of gritty hope leads us through our wounds to a place of healing. It doesn’t make sense for me to love my life in a wheelchair or to live with true joy in the midst of chronic pain and loss. Yet, I am overwhelmed with this sense that I am still on this Earth for a reason, and I’ve got some good work to do. I think, if you have a pulse, you have a purpose. And we get to help each other find out what are unique purposes are together.

So, how are things going today? 🙂

I LOVE my life, all the good and hard parts. We recently moved back to the South, to Atlanta, Georgia, to be closer to family and new opportunities in a new season. The transition has been challenging, but all the things we’ve learned about persevering continue to be true and offer powerful perspective to us no matter the circumstance.

I recently turned 37, though my body kind of feels like it’s 87. I mostly use a wheelchair or cane. I can’t drive. My face is paralyzed. I have double vision. I’m deaf in my right ear. My right hand has no fine motor coordination. I have major issues swallowing still. Aging and disability don’t go great together, and my health, like all of us, has some major unknowns and challenges. And yet, I’m doing just fine! My overall health is good, and my family is doing really well. The unique work we’ve been called to continues to thrive and grow. Despite my limitations, I get to travel and encourage people all over the world with this message of hope. Yet honestly, any of that could change tomorrow. It could be the best day, the worst day, or the last day, so I’m constantly reminded to live fully into the present and to do so with gratitude and joy.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)

  1. The morning mantra — My Dad would take us to school every morning and blast some motivational cassette tapes from the era (think Zig Ziglar’s “quit your stinkin thinkin”). It eventually translated into his own daily pep talk he would joyfully belt out to us. “Today is my favorite day. I like tomorrow and yesterday, but today is my favorite day. I feel healthy. I feel happy. I feel great!” I’m sure in certain junior high years we were less receptive to it and maybe even begged him to stop embarrassing us, but I’ll tell you it stuck. And that “fake it til you make it” mentality has fueled my positivity and taken me through many dark seasons when I was feeling anything but positive. To this day, we joyfully annoy our kids with the same powerful exercise, singing and goofily reciting the same motivation to start their day off just right.
  2. Find the good / hard stories — I was a bit of a weird kid and was kind of obsessed with stories from the Holocaust and the Civil Rights era. For some reason, as a privileged, little white girl in the South, I wanted to hear and learn from stories of struggle amidst life’s hardest circumstances. Little did I know how those stories would prepare me for the hardships ahead. I read every biography of strong women like Helen Keller, Anne Frank, Rosa Parks, Corrie Ten Boom, and Joni Eareckson Tada. They were and are still some of my life heroes. And their stories have fueled my desire to persevere well and suffer strong. To this day, I get to hear stories of struggle from people all over the world, dealing with challenges I could never imagine surviving much less thriving in, and it encourages me that if they can live their stories well, then I can too.
  3. Channel your inner animal — After the stroke, I was left at a 0. It literally took two full years in hospitals and brain rehabs doing therapy nearly every day to just get back at a baseline so I would be well enough to go back home. It was one of the hardest challenges of my life, like clawing my way up Mount Everest. Jay’s Dad is one of my biggest cheerleaders and would constantly spur me on to keep getting out the bed and getting well. He is a pastor but comes from a long-line of no-nonsense, gritty Texas cowboys. I remember, he told me, “You are a WOLF (my last name), they don’t make things we can’t do.” This statement in and of itself was motivating. I was part of a family and a history of people who did hard things. But funny enough, my foggy brain at the time really latched onto the WOLF part. I channeled my inner wolf as I gritted my teeth and practiced swallowing day after day, did pool therapy to help my body coordinate its movement and took one painfully slow step at a time to re-learn to walk again. I was the wolf (and I still am!) It just happened to be my name, but we can all choose to put on a strong persona and give ourselves a new name when we enter into the fight.
  4. Perspective is key — We’re all prone to feel victims more than overcomers. Yet, when we engage perspective, we start feeling less alone, more grateful, and more empowered. The struggles in our lives that feel most personal, like no one could understand, are really the struggles that are most universal to our experience as humans. I remember feeling so broken by my circumstances early after my stroke. It felt like the worst thing that had ever happened. Jay checked me out of my in-patient brain rehab and we went on our first date back in the real world. I couldn’t walk or eat and for some reason, we decided to see a movie in the theater called “Slumdog Millionaire”. This story highlighted the struggle and hope of the impoverished street children of India. I remember weeping through the film in recognition that the world was full of hurting people in horrific circumstances, ones objectively much worse than mine. My story, as hard as it was, was in fact full of incredible possibility and unmerited advantages, and I didn’t want to waste it. When we recognize our circumstances could always be worse, we’re less prone to focus on how they are not good enough, and instead, we can focus on how to lean into them and live them to the fullest.
  5. Remember your future — A psychiatrist friend of ours, Dr. Curt Thompson, enlightened us to how our brains get fueled with grit. Though our circumstances are out of our control, how we think about them is not. We get to choose how we think about the story of our lives. What we pay attention to makes a memory and that memory is what our brain uses to anticipate the future. So what we pay attention to now, helps us “remember our future”. This doesn’t change the outcomes. This doesn’t manifest some future reality. It does however help us to not be afraid of what may happen next. It helps us to live with courage and not anxiety. It helps us to keep going against the odds and prognosis. Our brains internalize the message that there has been hope in the past and there will be hope in the future, and that’s something worth persevering for!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?

My husband, Jay, is my best friend, cheerleader, and partner in life and family and calling. Our skills and talents meld together so beautifully. We’re both firstborns, hard-working and determined, which causes some conflicts, no doubt, but has helped us get where we are today.

I’ll never forget hearing the story from very early on in my recovery. A social worker at the hospital recommended Jay take a break from his near-constant schedule by my bedside. They recommended he take some time away so he wouldn’t burn out. His reply makes me teary to this day. He said, “Katherine doesn’t get a vacation from this, so I’m not taking one either. I’ll wait to get away until I can take her with me.” Jay would be the first to tell you, he’s not perfect, and he’s no hero. He’s just trying to show up to the wife and life he promised to when we got married. And yet the kind of love that sacrifices so another person can know they are not alone is the kind of love we all need. Jay’s willingness to keep showing up has fueled me to keep showing up too.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have sought to use my platform and success to encourage people to fully love and lean into their own unexpected and hard stories. My story is really all of our stories. I’m a flesh and bones picture of flourishing, not just in spite of my constraints but because of them. And that is possible for everyone. We all want to find new life where there should only be death and healing of our deeply broken places. I try to intentionally communicate that through every social media post or new idea we come up with for camp or person we meet at the grocery store. Honestly, we are all disabled. Many of us are in physical wheelchairs, but we all have invisible wheelchairs on the inside. We can’t do life alone, but we were never meant to. We need each other.

I also hope to be a spokesperson and advocate for the beauty and struggle of life with disabilities, being a bridge between the disabled community and “typical” audience, helping us all see each other and love each other better. According to the United Nations, persons with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, and yet we are so underrepresented and even misunderstood. The challenges are great when trying to live in a physical world not made for you. And yet, when we see ourselves in each other’s story, it’s no longer “us and them”, but it becomes “we”.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re so grateful to get to lean into this redemptive and unique calling with both our lives full-time. Because of this focus, we’ve got lots of really exciting things ahead. Our second book, “Suffer Strong” will release in early 2020. Like our first book, “Hope Heals” it will be told back and forth from both our perspectives, but this book will more about the universal lessons we’ve learned in the past decade of struggle and overcoming. And speaking of “Hope Heals”, the movie rights were purchased not too long ago and an INCREDIBLE script has been written. We hold that project very loosely because who knows, but we think all this drama, humor, and love is perfect for the big screen! Lastly, our third year of HOPE HEALS CAMP is happening this Summer, where we anticipate nearly 800 participants over two weeks, from 25+ states (and the UK) representing over 20 different types of disabilities, ages 1 to 75 years old! It’s been life-changing and we have LOTS of dreams to continue expanding into new arenas to creatively advocate for and encourage the special needs community and beyond! Stay tuned 🙂 (make a tax-deductible donation to bring a family with disabilities to camp for free at www.hopehealscamp.org)

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

“Hope it forward”. I love this counter-cultural idea that we’ve been given comfort, not just so we can be comfortable. We’ve been given hope, not just so we can be hopeful, but ultimately, so we can give those good things away to others in need. We’re afraid of losing. We’re entitled and want to keep the things we think we deserve. And yet we have the opportunity to open our hands and vulnerably offer what we’ve received to someone else who needs it. That whole-hearted offering is where the true healing begins!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The good life and the hard life aren’t mutually exclusive. We can love and celebrate our stories, even the ones we never could have imagined ourselves living. I like to tell my boys, God made you to do the hard thing in the good story He’s writing for your life. And when I tell them, I remind myself too.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: @hopeheals

Twitter: @hopeheals

Instagram: @hopeheals

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.