From Friend to Founder of LoveAbility

She walked a little funny.Young Varonica and Jerrica Freshman Year of High School

That’s all I really knew about Varonica when I met her. That, and she pulled her backpack and laptop case around our junior high campus on a little two-wheeled caddy. This was back in 1998, mind you, so her laptop was the size of a briefcase and as heavy as one filled with bricks.

We didn’t have any classes together but we did have a mutual friend. This mutual friend already had a bestie, a true BFF, and I suppose she thought I needed one too. And it turns out she was quite the BFF matchmaker.

It’s funny because I only remember a brief conversation about how I would get along with Varonica, and the next thing I remember is visiting her in the hospital at the beginning of summer break.

Hospital?!

Yes, well, like I said, Varonica walked a little funny. This was due mainly to two physical abnormalities: severe scoliosis and Barbie feet (more on Barbie’s role later). After seventh grade, Varonica went straight to the children’s hospital to have a metal rod inserted along her spine to help strengthen and straighten her back.

So, there I was, visiting my soon-to-be BFF in her hospital room. Who can remember what we talked about or did, but it was a turning point in our budding friendship.

Varonica and Jerrica at a prep rallyBefore we knew it, we were roaming the halls of our gigantic high school. With over 3,000 students, our classrooms were spread over a few acres. It could take five minutes to walk from one class to the other. With so much ground to cover, Varonica started to use a wheelchair and entrusted me to push her from class to class. I say entrusted because I grew up riding ATVs and go-carts, so I viewed the campus as our personal race track.

We’d zoom from class to class, feeling special because we got a key to the elevator and always had the perfect excuse for being a few minutes late to our classes.

Everyone knew who we were, despite our enormous student body. Or rather, everyone knew Varonica. I’m pretty sure I was just known as the short little redhead who pushed her around. I was a stereotypical nerd who didn’t wear makeup, care about shopping, or focused on boys more than my studies.

Varonica was much more social than I was. She’d say hello to everyone by name as we went from class to class, especially the hot guys who’d flash their beautiful smiles and give her a hug if they could spare the time. I’m telling you, after four years, I don’t think half of them knew my name. But I didn’t mind in the least. They were always nice to me and loved chatting up Varonica. They’d often take her to her classes when headed the same way.

I know what you’re thinking. What fantasyland high school did we go to, where hot guys chatted up the underlings on a big beautiful campus?

Jerrica and Varonica posing to emphasize their eyeglassesLet me tell you, our class slapped the stereotypical world of high school in the face. Cheerleaders were in AP classes, jocks hung out with nerds, and the prom king and queen were the nicest people in school. Who knows if we were in some kind of Twilight Zone, but little nerdy Jerrica and socialite Varonica had a great time in high school.

Nothing slowed us down, not even two more surgeries for Varonica.

Right before freshman year, Varonica had her first surgery for her Barbie feet (that was the actual “medical” term her doctors used). As you may be able to guess, Varonica’s feet were “stuck” in a somewhat pointed position which meant she walked mostly on the balls of her feet (one more so than the other). Walking on the balls of your feet is not only awkward, but also very tiring. You can give it a try sometime and see if you last 14 years like Varonica did.

Varonica’s leg surgeries would have made a certain demi-god cringe, but by strategically cutting her Achilles tendons the surgeon successfully relaxed her feet to a much more comfortable position. First, before freshman year, and then the other foot after sophomore year.

Varonica took all of this in stride, no pun intended (ok, maybe a little intended).

Jerrica and Varonica in the car looking like they're too young to driveWe still had pool parties, sleepovers, and all kinds of adventures, especially once I got my driver’s license. The first thing I did after passing my exam was go pick up Varonica and drive us through the nearest McDonalds. Apparently, that was the pinnacle of freedom for us sixteen-year-olds.

Varonica was (and still is) the queen of music. It was like I had my own personal DJ wherever I went. Both of us are pretty terrible singers (me, the worst), but that didn’t stop us from belting every song as we cruised around town. Avril Lavine, Sugar Rey, Linkin Park, and the Moulin Rouge soundtrack frequented the cd player. It was us, our music, and the road every chance we got.

Jerrica and Varonica in high school graduation caps and gownsDid I mention we really enjoyed high school? Because we did. Then graduation came and it was time to grow up.

Jerrica, the nerd, set off to another city for college in the fall and Varonica, the hometown girl, stayed to go to the great local state university, like most did from our high school. I’d love to say our friendship didn’t change during college, but it did.

Slowly, but surely, we drifted apart.

Nothing hurtful happened. Just life. Different friends, different colleges, different cities just took up more and more of our time and focus. By the time I graduated college, we hardly saw each other or even spoke. It was weird. Even now, it just seems wrong.

After college, I moved back to our hometown. I got a house and threw myself into work. A guy followed me from college and finally convinced me to marry him (that’s another love story for another time). We had a big beautiful wedding but there was something missing: Varonica.

To this day, I regret not having Varonica as my bridesmaid.

Sure, we’d hardly talked in a couple of years but that was just a blink of our friendship’s eye. I wish I could’ve seen that then. But I suppose the missing bridesmaid did make me realize the hole in my life. It wasn’t long before we were friends again.

Varonica and Jerrica at the lakeJust like when we first became friends, I’m not sure what was said or done. But one phone call later, we were back together like nothing had ever changed. Same car, same terrible singing, same McDonalds french fries. Nothing needed forgiving, we just needed to get back on track.

And that’s exactly what we did.

Even when life took me and my family to Texas and then to North Carolina, Varonica and I remained friends. We had learned our lesson from our last long-distance disaster. Being halfway or even all the way across the country wasn’t going to separate our friendship again. Thankfully, me and my family are finally back in California where we belong with our friends and family. And Varonica is only a four-hour drive away.

Varonica and I have been best friends for over twenty years. I always like to point out that we’ve been friends longer than we haven’t. And, we’re quickly approaching when we’ll have been friends twice as long as we haven’t. We’ll definitely have to celebrate that one.

But, Varonica’s life looks very different than mine.

Jerrica dressed as Frankenstein, Varonica as Frankenstein's bride, Jerrica's husband as Igor, and Jerrica's son as Frankenstein's monsterI’ve got the husband, the kids, and the minivan. Varonica’s got the bachelorette pad, the job, and the freedom. I always joke she has it better, and she agrees for the most part. She’s a strong, independent woman and likes living life with no one to answer to. She doesn’t know if she even wants to be married, let alone have kids. And I totally get it.

But there was a part of me that always wondered if it was her disability that was holding her back. If there was part of her that believed romantic relationships weren’t “for her.”

When we talked about it, she thought that was partially true but lots of other factors were likely involved, of course. She admitted that she didn’t know how to present her disability, especially in the world of online dating. After all, they don’t even have a name for her disability. She didn’t know how much she should say or how others would react. And, most of all, she wasn’t even sure what kind of relationship she wanted.

Jerrica and Varonica at happy hourI asked if she wanted to give online dating a try, with my help. I figured it was as good a way as any to figure out what she wanted, if anything. I told her we could try a few different sites, including disability niche sites to see where she felt most comfortable. She reluctantly agreed, finally giving in to my persistent optimism and “why not?” argument.

We dove into the online dating pool and I quickly realized why she was hesitant to test the waters.

Mainstream dating sites and disability niche seemed to be on opposite ends of the pool. The big-name, mainstream dating sites didn’t have a good place to mention her disability and the disability-niche sites put a big spotlight on it. Where was the happy medium?

Where was the mainstream dating site that gave people with disabilities a comfortable way to discuss their disability if they wanted to and how they wanted to? Where was the disability dating site that matched people with disabilities based on personality traits, not on their disability? Where was the dating site that intentionally brought disabled and able-bodied people together?

It wasn’t anywhere. But something else was missing. Something BIG.

Where was the site that educated people on dating with a disability, or dating those with disabilities? Where was the site that taught people about proper etiquette when it comes to disabilities? Where was the site that was helping society catch up to their new inclusive platform?

It wasn’t anywhere either. And I wasn’t going to wait around for someone else to finally fill this huge gap. It should’ve been filled already!

So, LoveAbility was born.

LoveAbility: a site that knows love has the ability to overcome any stigma, any ignorance, and any insecurity. A site that knows friendship is as important as romantic relationships. A site that strengthens people’s ability to love.

Jerrica sitting on Varonicas wheelchair armrest with her arm around VaronicaAs an able-bodied founder, and as a human, I’m going to get it wrong sometimes. I’m probably going to be accused of being an ableist, unrealist, and more at times. I know I still have a lot to learn. But I’m trying. And I’m going to keep trying to make a difference with the same philosophy as I live my life: to love to the best of my ability.

Try with me.