An Unbreakable Spirit

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By Tiffany Musick Matthews

Justin Skeesuck (97) is many things: artist, entrepreneur, father, husband, and friend. But of the words that describe Skeesuck, there is one he never imagined would be used: disabled.

At the age of 16, Skeesuck was involved in a car accident that triggered a dormant disease in his body. This disease, known as multifocal acquired motor axonopathy (MAMA), is a rare progressive neuromuscular disorder. Similar to ALS, MAMA targets certain muscles and diminishes their ability to function.

In Skeesuck’s case, this initially meant wearing a brace on each foot. But as the disease advanced, Skeesuck required the use of a cane, then a walker, and now a wheelchair.

justin4Thankful to survive the collision at all, Skeesuck didn’t let his diagnosis deter him from accomplishing his goals, one of which was to attend college.

Originally from Ontario, Ore., Skeesuck wanted to venture beyond his childhood home. He heard of PLNU through his Nazarene roots, and when he decided to visit campus his senior year of high school, something struck a chord. Drawn to the campus, the inviting atmosphere, and the promise of new opportunities, Skeesuck knew immediately that PLNU was his college of choice.

Upon arrival at PLNU, equipped with what he calls an “artistic bone,” Skeesuck looked into majors that would allow him to pursue his creative gifts. Unfamiliar with the graphic design field, he began to consider this option on the advice of his cousin, who also happened to be his college roommate.

After researching PLNU’s graphic design program, Skeesuck felt assured this career path would be a fitting one. Along with his studies, Skeesuck also worked with freshman student council, served as director of publicity for ASB, participated in a LoveWorks trip to Sicily, Italy, and volunteered throughout the San Diego community. He graduated with a degree in art with an emphasis in graphic design, but his association with PLNU was far from over.

Skeesuck went on to work for a few years at local design studios before venturing out on his own. He opened his freelance studio, Seen and Noted, in 2005. In the eight years following, he worked for Fortune 500 companies such as Infiniti, Nissan, and Hewlett-Packard, as well as small start-up businesses.

justin2“Designing for big brands is fun, but I really like working with the small companies that have their own vision and are building from the ground up,” said Skeesuck.

Another regular on his impressive client list is his alma mater. Skeesuck has been involved with several projects for PLNU, including designing materials for Project Yes and LoveWorks.

“I really enjoyed working with LoveWorks because I got to see what the school was achieving through missions, both locally and worldwide,” said Skeesuck. “I went on a trip when I was a student and know what that experience is like. Hopefully the pieces I have designed will get other students excited about going, too.”

Most recently, he designed artwork for the school’s heritage signs, which are to be placed in the lobbies of PLNU’s residence halls. These signs, which introduce the people for whom the halls were named, were also a very meaningful endeavor for him. As a resident of Hendricks and Goodwin when he was a student, Skeesuck was able to relate to the project and its significance as part of the school’s history.

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Skeesuck’s artistic eye and flourishing career kept him hopeful about his future in design. That is, until his disease began to limit the use of his arms. Knowing that the increased demand at work and the decreased function of his hands would create a compromising situation, Skeesuck began exploring what he would do if design were no longer an option.

Determined to transition into something he found as meaningful and inspiring as design, Skeesuck began piecing together ideas that would make the most of his condition. Now in the process of retiring from his work as a graphic designer, Skeesuck is looking to reach a new audience and use the unique skills that grew out of his unusual circumstances.

Over the years, and despite his limitations, Skeesuck has cultivated a love for travel. But with his limited mobility have come several challenges in his ventures to see the world. Realizing an opportunity to share his knowledge and advice with others who are disabled, Skeesuck launched a new business called The Disabled Traveler.

“Basically, I want to use my research and experience to try to fill in the gap for those who want to travel but don’t know where t start,” said Skeesuck. Through The Disabled Traveler, Skeesuck addresses issues such as how to navigate airport security or make arrangements for long flights when traveling with a disability. He also aims to provide encouragement through sharing his personal story. Though The Disabled Traveler is not technically ministry-based, Skeesuck hopes to demonstrate how God works through disabilities by showing others how to have full and fruitful lives despite their circumstances.

Skeesuck’s efforts for The Disabled Traveler include developing informational products, webinars, seminars, and inperson consultations. In order to provide the most relevant information, Skeesuck plans to travel to different locations and research the difficulties that might arise, such as inaccessibility of major tourist attractions. He will then provide tips on easy routes to take, worthwhile places to visit, or convenient services to request while on the move. By working while living abroad and gaining hands-on experience with the ins-and-outs of disabled traveling, Skeesuck hopes to supply his audience with the resources they need to travel with ease.

Currently, Skeesuck and his family are in the midst of a three-month stay in Italy. With more than 10,000 hours of research put in prior to leaving, Skeesuck is using this excursion as a pilot for future trips. And though his focus is largely research, he admits that there are other motives for choosing Italy specifically.

“My wife of 13 years, Kirstin (Karlson) (01), and I went to Italy on our honeymoon and promised to go back someday. So, this trip is for work and family. We want to use this as a chance to teach our kids and show them that there is a big world out there,” said Skeesuck.

In fact, the new business requires the support of the whole Skeesuck family: Justin, Kirstin, and their three kids: Jaden, Noah, and Lauren. Kirstin, who worked as a registered nurse at the VA Medical Center for 12 years, left her position last summer to stay home as the family’s focus shifted. Excited for the opportunity to care for and spend more time with her family, Kirstin sees The Disabled Traveler as a welcome transition and the perfect fit for her husband.

justin3“Justin has always been an eternal optimist and seen humor in most situations in life,” said Kirstin. “I have seen firsthand that a person’s attitude in life and toward their situation can literally make or break whether or not they succeed. Justin has never sat around complaining about what this disease has done to him or taken from him; he just adjusts and keeps moving forward.”

Next on the agenda is a 2014 trip to Spain where Skeesuck will take part in the Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage to reach Santiago de Compostela, the burial place of St. James. Skeesuck will document the experience with the intent of writing a book about his participation.

With almost two years of work already put into prepping and building the foundation for The Disabled Traveler, Skeesuck is confident and excited about the future of his business.

“The response so far has been 100 percent positive from family, friends, and complete strangers,” Skeesuck said. “People are so grateful for this resource, both in my immediate circles and in the community.”

Through The Disabled Traveler, Skeesuck admits to learning about more than just accessible travel. He has learned the importance of patience through what he describes as “waiting on God and a lot of prayer.” He has also come to rely on his strong work ethic, which he said has paid off after working for himself for several years.

While many might not see the silver lining after experiencing extreme hardship, or in this case, a life-changing car accident, Skeesuck’s positive outlook on life is indomitable.

“I feel really blessed to have the design career I have had and now another career that I feel passionate about,” said Skeesuck. “I was worried about what I would do if I was no longer able to design, and The Disabled Traveler was the answer to my prayer. I am blessed to have the skill sets to be able to transition from one career to another. It is just really cool to look back and see how everything is connected and how it all worked together.”

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