It’s the first of the month and shoppers push and pull overfilled grocery carts to the checkout line. Frozen meals, diapers and soaps tumble onto conveyor belts.
Mark Simpson greets Diana McGibbon and her daughter, Adelaide, as their cart comes to rest just past his register.
Her tiny legs, dangling from the grocery cart’s child seat, abruptly stop swinging.
“Do I get a high-five today?” he asks Adelaide
Her eyes grow wide.
“I know you don’t have legs,” she says in all seriousness.
Simpson laughs and smiles at her. He places his rough, calloused hands onto the counter, elevating his hips and torso about two inches above it.
Those new to the Walmart store on Old Forest Road in Lynchburg, where he started working in 2012, come to a dead stop. Some stare unabashedly.
Being a double amputee is not what Simpson wants to be known for, defined by or remembered for.
Yet while trying to work his way through school in a small city, he has attracted the attention of hundreds, all of them curious.
“Almost every kid asks, ‘What happened to you?’” said 24-year-old Simpson, who enrolled in Liberty University’s criminal justice program in the fall of 2009 after some prodding from an older sister.
That one question, said Simpson, “is what I need in order to not only open the door of communication with people, but also to share what God’s done in my life.”
“Mark’s got a story to tell,” said Larry Montecino in April as he stood in front of a local Ruritan group. He holds up Simpson’s business card and reads it aloud as Mark moves to the center of the room in the wheelchair his dad made.
“No legs, no limits, no excuses,” Montecino said.
And with that, Simpson began telling his tale, hop-scotching back and forth in time, revealing the chapters of his story he hopes will inspire and motivate.
He was adopted at the age of 2. That’s how old he was when Cheryl and David Simpson visited the orphanage where he was living in what is now Mumbai, India. The Simpsons adopted Mark and another orphan, a girl, and brought them to the United States.
After that, Cheryl Simpson said they began getting calls from people alerting them to other children with special needs who needed homes. The Simpsons eventually adopted seven children, all with special needs.
Mark Simpson, who had been born with deformed legs and got around on his hands and in a wheelchair, helped care for them.
Then, a Shriner, who saw him at church in West Columbia, S.C., asked if Shriners Hospitals for Children might be able to make Mark’s legs functional.
The legs he was born with were deformed, small in size and lacking thigh bones. His feet were deformed as well, growing at a slant.
The leg bones he did have scraped against one another, causing nearly constant pain.
Simpson calls the legs he had — which were never strong enough to propel his body through the world in the manner he’d hoped — “a burden, so to speak.”
He was 17 when doctors at Shriners said his legs could not be fixed.
He asked for a double amputation, a five-hour surgery that would remove both legs at the top of the thigh and leave him struggling to keep his balance for months.
“Three weeks after surgery, I found myself in the last place I wanted to be, which was in front of 500 people telling my story, stitches still in me, me still trying to regain strength,” Simpson said.
Fast forward just four years and Simpson, who was home-schooled, is enrolled at Liberty University, 300 miles from home.
He drives his own car, using hand controls and pulling his compact body through the driver’s side window onto the roof, to the shock of other drivers.
He holds down a full-time job at Walmart, often getting in trouble for being overly helpful to customers and leaving his post, and carries as many classes as he can at LU.
His antics — which include scaring the bejesus out of children at the well-known haunted house Scaremare, climbing out of his car through the trunk, and lying beside a car tire pretending to be run over — are known for going viral on the Internet.
He snowboards at Snowflex and has hiked Sharp Top using his hands and arms to propel his body and his core to keep his balance.
“Believe it or not, sometimes it’s not fun living without legs,” said Simpson during one of his public speaking engagements. “I still struggle with self-image.”
His sense of humor is trademark. It’s the salve that helps him cope, but also the bridge between himself and strangers. He makes them laugh and they can’t help but be drawn in.
“They see what he’s been through” and the message he shares starts to carry a lot more weight because of it, said Simpson’s childhood minister Ren Bray.
After two years, Simpson saw it, too, and he changed his major to youth ministry.
“We were just waiting for him to realize what we already knew,” said his mother Cheryl Simpson, who still lives in Columbia, S.C. “We knew for a while now that he was going to be doing something more than he had planned on.”
Finally, he was forced to come to terms with reality.
He gave his testimony at Thomas Road Baptist Church one day. Then he was asked to tell his story again. And then again.
And it clicked.
“I’m not qualified, I’m not qualified at all” to be a public speaker, he said. But now, more than anything, it is what he hopes to become. He has changed his major from law enforcement and is now studying youth ministry. He wants to find children, orphans like he was once, and show them what God can do.
“From the time he was small we knew that this was something that was going to be in his future,” Cheryl Simpson said.
Mark Simpson envisions working with a team of people who have “been through instances that are so major it brought them to their knees in front of God and the only way they were able to get through that situation is with God’s help.”
Their messages give audiences “cold-hard evidence” and proof they can get through it and heal.
“In the end when people see me up on a stage I don’t want them to see a double amputee. I want them to see a man who is striving to bring God’s glory through his own life,” Simpson said. “Sometimes that’s hard to do.”
Based on how far Simpson has come on perseverance alone, Bray, his childhood minister, is confident he will be successful.
“Instead of looking at what he doesn’t have and what he cannot do, he looks at what he does have and what he can do and puts everything he has into it,” Bray said.
“I think he knows that God’s using him and he lets God use him,” he said.
“I think he’s even been created to help other people.”
Contact Amy Trent at (434) 385-5543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.