Becoming the youngest person to ever place in the top 10 of a national SkillsUSA competition. Delivering an impassioned speech in front of hundreds of peers. Walking onto a stage in front of thousands and being recognized as a national leader. These are great accomplishments for any young person. But for James Calle of Matlock, Wash., who was never supposed to talk let alone walk, they are even more inspiring.
Born three months premature, Calle (pronounced Kai-yay) had suffered brain damage, leading to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy. Doctors told his mother, Jeannie, not to bother daydreaming about her 1.8-pound baby’s first words and steps. Most likely, they’d never come.
But if there’s one word that sums up his 18 years, it’s perseverance. Neither mother nor son would sit back and accept the bleak prognosis. “I always had a drive in me,” he says. “As an infant, since I couldn’t crawl, I would get on my belly and just scoot until I could grab what I wanted.”
Calle credits his mother with instilling that drive, calling her “my anchor growing up.” With a relentless commitment to a demanding physical and speech therapy regimen, his first steps and words finally came at age 4. The next few years would be spent in leg braces, but by the time he was 12, Calle’s legs were strong enough that he walked into school without those outward reminders of his disability.
Ironically, this moment of intense personal triumph would magnify the mental pain that was to come. “Even though I’d done so much to walk without braces, some kids just looked at me and said, ‘You still walk funny,’” Calle says.
His early drive turned to introverted reflection. Calle characterizes himself then as “negative and clammed up. I remember wishing I could play ball like other kids, be a part of a team. It was awkward meeting new people, because they didn’t know how to react.
“One moment that stands out was when I asked a girl to dance. She looked down, looked up, said ‘I can’t’ and walked away.
“I thought at the time, ‘That’s so brutal,’” he laughs. “And that’s when you really figure out that you’re different in a negative way.”
However, a new day was about to dawn in Calle’s life, heralded, like so many great days, by the appearance of … pizza.
“I was in lunch line on pizza day,” he remembers, “and a teacher [Dana Anderson] came out and said, ‘You need to be in SkillsUSA.’” Anderson, the culinary arts instructor at Mary M. Knight School, convinced him to join.
“I’ll never forget my first state conference,” Calle says. “I saw all these people in red blazers, the same thing I was wearing, and everyone was shaking my hand. We were all having a good time. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m a part of something really cool here. I don’t feel like I used to. I’m in my element.’”
Suddenly, the old drive to persevere was firing again, and, in his first year of SkillsUSA, the seventh-grader placed seventh in Action Skills at the SkillsUSA Championships. He’s since become a regional, state, and — just last year —national officer.
“Words can’t describe what I felt when I took that first step out of those braces,” Calle says, “but that first step I took out on stage as a national officer was almost as amazing. I could finally say, ‘Jimmy, you’re not a cripple, you’re not a handicap, you’ve got tons of people applauding you, and you’ve earned your way here.’”
As he considers colleges and his future career path, Calle will most likely be moving on from his culinary arts studies. But he knows the life lessons learned in SkillsUSA will never leave him.
“SkillsUSA is like the basketball team I could never be a part of,” he says. “It went hand-in-hand with me feeling less isolated. I don’t think I’d have been able to reach my full potential without it.
“Everyone is crippled in some way,” he points out. “But you can’t just lie back and accept a negative. I’m here to say that you can achieve anything if you persevere, and everyone has that ability to say, ‘I want it’ and then go get it.”