When I dream, I am not in a wheelchair. I have no disabilities. I am free.” This statement sums up Mark Grantham’s approach to life. Born a tetraplegic with cerebral palsy, his attitude is completely void of self-pity and full of hope. He has spent the past two decades appealing to the kindness of strangers in a quest to raise money for charity. In doing so, he has sold thousands of blocks of Cadbury chocolate and raised more than $20,000.
Mark, 33, has been selling chocolates on the pavements of Wellington and Auckland’s Newmarket since he was 13, making him a well-known Saturday morning sight for shoppers. Every cent of the money he’s raised has been donated to educate the five children he sponsors in Africa and India and support their communities through World Vision. Asked what motivates him, he says, “I am much better at giving than receiving.”
Mark has no feeling in his body from the neck down. Without the use of his arms or legs, every day is an effort. Even talking can be such a strain that it sends his body into spasms, but that certainly does not stop him from communicating. His eyes really are the windows to his soul and they are as effective as gestures in conveying emotion.
While many people have bought chocolates from him over the years, many others have passed him by, but Mark doesn’t complain because those who do give do so with a smile and have made the ongoing support of his children possible.
Mark is unflinching in his focus – to create opportunities for those he believes face worse challenges than he does. Last year he travelled to Tanzania to visit Lokadia and Dismas, the two children he sponsors. In 2005, he visited the three children he sponsors in Mumbai, India.
His recent African odyssey was just another challenge in the life Mark is determined to make as full and rich as possible. Lokadia and Dismas, both 10, are from the World Vision Magugu Area Development Programme in the Great Rift Valley.
Such a journey for Mark was quite a mission, requiring the help of a team of caregivers, a lot of patience and a sense of humour. The plane journey alone was complicated and arduous. It was all worth it, however, judging by the excitement with which he describes meeting the children for the first time, and seeing for himself what a difference his contributions have made to their lives through education and healthcare. Lokadia, Dismas and the other villagers showed Mark great respect and their gifts of Masai blankets, traditional jewellery and baskets are displayed prominently in his home.
Personal assistant Hailey Amohanga has been working with Mark for 10 years and says meeting his sponsored children in Africa was a special time. “It was overwhelming to be with him, to see him achieve his dreams and, because Mark and I are so close and he is like my brother, it was a very important moment for me as well.”
Mark’s father Chris Grantham has written and self-published a book on his son’s life called The Chocolate Seller on Broadway and his Kids (cocoabeanpress.com, $30). Chris’s aim is to tell the story of Mark’s life and provide inspiration and hope to others.
Although he has struggled with his disabilities all his life, there have been many successes worth celebrating along the way. One of the most life-changing breakthroughs was speech. As Chris writes in his book: “There was a succession of amazing speech and language therapists over the years and almost without exception they were affirming, encouraging and life-giving women whose work increased Mark’s independence.”
Mark is now a confident public speaker who would like to make a living out of motivational speaking. He helps run training seminars for Standards Plus, an organisation that promotes leadership and quality in services for people with disabilities, talking frankly about his experiences to encourage other disabled people to achieve their goals.
He takes delight in the motivation he gives others, telling the story of a woman who rang World Vision after seeing him interviewed. She said she was giving up smoking and that the money she saved as a result would go towards sponsoring children.
The acting CEO of World Vision NZ, Les Stephenson, sums it up: “Mark is incredible. With all the reasons in the world not to go out and commit himself to doing something like this, his courage and focus is breathtaking and we know it will inspire others.”