It was a quiet ride on the way to Kaiser Permanente Hospital. On a day when most pre-teen girls were headed to school to exchange valentines with their junior high school crushes, 12-year-old Candis Welch was headed into surgery, uncertain if she’d ever again lay her eyes on the graceful palm trees that lined the street outside the medical center. Yet, the imminent threat of death didn’t frighten or intimidate Candis. With her thoughts cloaked in juvenile ignorance, she ventured into surgery optimistic and naive to the grueling journey ahead.
Candis was born with a rare form of spinal muscular atrophy. The disorder crippled her young body. Within four years, the deep curvature of her spine pressed so protrudingly against her organs, doctors were unsure her lungs would be strong enough to make it through anesthesia. Albeit life-threatening, the corrective surgery would be life-saving.
“I was told by the doctors if I didn’t have this extensive, very dangerous surgery, I would die within six months,” Candis said reflecting on the nascent years of her life. “I had the corrective surgery and that began a whole slew of therapy and a lot of determination and through that I just kept going.”
Today, Candis holds her Master’s Degree in Public Administration, has been Issa Rae’s assistant for five years, and works for the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority all from her wheelchair.
The Tough Road Ahead
Candis was diagnosed with SMA at 18-months-old. By the age 12, Candis was desperate to undergo corrective surgery, which would relieve the immense pain she endured on a daily basis. The eight-hour surgery would be grueling, but she rather risk death than “die on a timetable.” The procedure was successful but it rendered her home, where she was schooled for a year and spent a chunk of childhood on her back as she couldn’t sit up for six months after surgery. Candis’ recovery after she underwent the spinal fusion weighed heavy on her biggest support system, her parents.
Some days were tougher than others and when it seemed unbearable the tears flowed in abundance for Candis, who recalls high school being some of the most taxing years of her life. The rarity of the genetic disorder in the 90s made her an easy target for bullies.
“I was always a little crippled girl,” she remembered with a sensitivity in her voice. “I walked sort of like, if you could imagine, a penguin because of the curvature of my spine. Kids would always call me a little penguin. I used to have to wear this helmet on my head that protect my head, in the event that I did fall, kids call me ‘helmet head.’ At that age, it was very hard to deal with.”
Candis found solace for one month out the year when she would pack up her belongings and spend her summer at a muscular atrophy association camp, around other kids just like her.
“Camp allowed me to experience modified versions of kayaking and horseback riding,” she remembered with a smile in her voice. “It was the first time I felt like a normal kid.” Candis attended the camp for 10-12 years. “When I went to that camp I was just a regular kid and that felt great. And that kind of kept me sane throughout the other 11 months of the year.”
Candis’ support system was cemented by her family, God and one month away at summer camp when she could feel “normal.” But just when she thought life couldn’t get more difficult, her father passed away, sending she and her mother into a deep depression.
“My father passed away when I was a freshmen in high school. My father was my companion. He was with me almost every single day. So that’s when depression really hit me.”
With her mother grieving as well, she found comfort in therapy. “At that point [my mother] decided to let me go sit and talk with a therapist and go through my emotions because there were some dark days where I did not want to not want to continue this life.”
Knowing first-hand the depths depression has on one’s mentality and spirit, Candis recommends therapy for anyone struggling with the mental disorder. “I can definitely say talking to someone who was an outsider and didn’t have any biased toward me was helpful.”
On top of dealing with her disability, Candis struggled to maintain a social life like her peers. “I wanted to be normal. I wanted to go to the school dances. I wanted the boys to like me. I wanted to not be just cool because I was able to go up the elevator and everyone else has to walk. I wanted to be picked because I was just a nice person and I was so that was hard for me.”
The death of Candis’ father rocked the foundation she once stood on, but it prepared her for her next hurdle in life — college.
On Her Own
With a small inheritance from her father and the sheer determination to prove, mostly, to herself, that she could conquer any obstacle, Candis decided to move out her mother’s house, at 18, while attending college. Her mother was less than enthused about the idea.
“I was headstrong,” she said laughing. “My mother will admit to you to this day that she was very worried and concerned about me moving away from home.”
But Candis’ mind was already made up so she set her sights on downtown LA, where she got a studio apartment and got a job against her mother’s wishes. “When I enrolled in Santa Monica College, I saw an ad for a transcriber at the disabled student services department. I was like, ‘I can do that. I can write.’ And I started my first job.”
The decision to move out her mother’s house taught Candis a valuable lesson — fight or flight. “I had to learn how to take care of myself and my household. If I did not have that experience, I would not be as tenacious as I am now. I don’t take ‘No’ for an answer. If you tell me ‘No,’ I’m going to tell you, ‘Well, okay, well watch me do it.’
While Candis’ tenacious spirit can’t be broken, rock bottom is a dead-end street paved with stolen souls and soon, she dealt with trials that left her vulnerable and exposed. Candis experienced the lowest point of her life when her nurse didn’t show up for work one morning and left her stranded in bed for nearly two days.
“When they don’t show up, I’m reminded even more how disabled I am,” she revealed in a chilling statement. “I was stuck. I was stuck in my bed. I was stuck in the house, could not move or do anything.”
Still, laying in that bed unable to move, Candis never lost her faith in humanity. “God tends to show me through other examples that there are good people out there, that there are people that care and I am somewhat at the mercy of kindhearted people, especially in those situations. So I can’t hate humanity. I can’t hate the situation. I just have to learn how to roll with it. Literally.”
A Mother’s Love
“My mother has seen me through my highest and my lowest moments and she gets it when no one else does.”
Candis’ mother has been her biggest champion, constantly challenging her to “work a little bit harder” and persevere by any means necessary. Despite the set backs she faced in college, Candis graduated and continued her education until she obtained her Master’s Degree.
“There is a picture of my mother celebrating my master’s graduation and the happiness on her face, I just can’t even describe it.”
Candis is a first generation college student. Her name might be the only one on her degree, but it was an accomplishment for her whole family, especially her mother. “That was huge and then to have the circumstances that God gifted me with, I think just for her to see that we did it.”
“It was a collective effort between me, her and my father. Even after his passing I made it. I think she just was overjoyed. And even to this day, my mother has pictures of me all over her office. It’s quite embarrassing and she will brag to anyone that starts to talk about college or their baby. She is the ultimate proud parents, but she earned it because I am who I am because of her and my father. I would not be the woman who I am without them and my mother took on both the mother and father when my father passed away and she will forever be my best friend.”
Like any child, Candis ultimate goal is to make her mother proud. “She’s so excited that I’m starting this blog to tell my story because for so long I didn’t think I had a story to tell. But the fact that I am alive today and I am employed, I’m independent and I have a story to tell — I’m winning. So I hope that I make her proud even with future endeavors.”
Despite her accolades, Candis found herself working at a telemarketing firm and taking customer service jobs to pay her bills until one day she was laid off. Fate had a different plan.
“I was leaving the building and a good friend of mine texted me out of nowhere and was like, Hey, what are you doing?'” She responded, “‘Actually I’m unemployed.’ He was like, ‘You know what? There’s this girl I know. She’s looking for an assistant. She has a web series. I think you should apply.”
That “girl” happened to be Issa Rae. “I sent my resume and three days later I met Issa at a coffee shop in LA. Two days later she hired me and that is how I met her.”
Issa Rae never made mention of Candis’ obvious disability. According to Candis, “she didn’t even seem to care.” Unlike previous interviews, Issa was focused on Candis’ qualifications. “My wheelchair has never really come up unless we’re at an event or something and I have to see if it’s wheelchair accessible.”
Candis may be wheelchair bound, but she acknowledges everyone has obstacles they must overcome. “I think she’s an inspiration to me and her journey because I’ve seen it since it’s been on Youtube. And to see her hustle, to see her work ethic, I mean, just to see her determination to get past all the no’s, to finally start to see her on the fly. She’s amazing. She taught me that if you want to see yourself represented, you need to go ahead and put yourself into the position to represent yourself.
She adds, “She’s one of the best employers I can say because although it’s very, very demanding work, she’s an amazing person. And working with her inspired me throughout the year to tell my story today.”
The Jesus Year
Candis recently launched her blog Can Can On Wheelz and celebrated her 33rd birthday in grand fashion. In between her executive assistant position at Issa Rae’s production company, she works for the Los Angeles homeless services. “I am a true hustler and I definitely don’t take no for an answer.”
Follow Candis’ journey on Instagam.