Alumna Madeline Delp, Ms. Wheelchair USA, Works to Help Others “Live Boundless”

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Madeline Delp, adaptive surfing

In May of 2017, UNC Asheville graduating senior Madeline Delp walked across the stage to receive her diploma from Chancellor Grant, and received thundering applause and a standing ovation. The years of hard work that earned her degree summa cum laude in German and Spanish with distinctions in both majors was impressive enough. But Delp’s celebratory walk was made all the more meaningful by the physical challenge she had to overcome to accomplish it: Delp is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair.

“The decision to walk at my graduation was something that I battled with for weeks!” Delp said. “I had just received a new set of leg braces that still had to be adjusted—they didn't fit quite right and I had fallen when walking with them several times. The last thing I wanted to do was get out on stage and fall flat on my face in front of 3,000 people! But I had worked so hard to get my degree, and I kept hearing a small voice inside telling me, ‘Walk, walk, walk.’”

Delp decided to walk with the assistance of her leg braces, a walker, and Suzie Morris, administrative assistant for the drama department. While they rehearsed the walk together before Commencement, Delp shared with Morris her dreams for her career after graduation—creating a video series to inspire and educate others with disabilities.

“It was then that she gave me the contact of the director that eventually led me to meet the production team that I have now signed on with to film the Live Boundless series,” Delp said. The Live Boundless series, which Delp began filming with Productions in a Box in Wilmington, N.C., kicks off with an episode on adaptive surfing. Other videos will include episodes on health, such as how to exercise in a wheelchair, episodes on traveling abroad and accessible cities, and inspirational talks.

The Live Boundless series is the first goal of Delp’s newly-founded nonprofit of the same name. As the organization grows, Delp hopes to take on some larger projects.

“Removing barriers for those with disabilities on a legislative scale is extremely important for our team,” Delp said, “and we will begin working within our national structure to help enforce the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), advocate to maintain and enhance social health resources, and implement new standards of full accessibility, from helping to create more accessible playgrounds, to greater integration of those who are differently-abled into the workforce.”

Delp, who has traveled abroad several times and experienced accessibility issues in various countries, hopes to eventually make that effort international, as well. She’s also planning on using her double major in Spanish and German to begin translating the Live Boundless series, and she hopes to work on providing medical equipment and resources in third-world and developing countries.

Delp’s advocacy began with a run for Miss Wheelchair America last year, in which she was named runner-up, and has continued through her most recent run and crowning as Ms. Wheelchair USA.

“I decided to participate in the Ms. Wheelchair USA program because I saw what an incredible opportunity that it was for women to become a voice of change and hope in their nation and community,” Delp said. “They value the inner beauty and confidence of women no matter what their physical situation may be.” She hopes the publicity from the program also will help gain attention for the Live Boundless organization.

“Now after pushing through several very difficult situations over the past few years, I am finally getting to see my dreams become a reality,” Delp said. And while that in itself is rewarding, Delp said she finds the most satisfaction in seeing the impact her work is already making in the lives of others.

“While we were on set in Wilmington for the surfing episode, I had a woman come up to me while we were on the beach who was an above-the-knee amputee,” Delp said. “She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I never thought that surfing would be possible with my injury, but after watching you get out there and fearlessly jump in the water with a smile on your face, I realized that maybe I could do it too.’ A little over a week later we were able to get her out in the water with the same adaptive surfing organization that I had worked with.”

Delp said the woman told her the experience had changed her perspective on life.

“Situations like those are what drive me to keep pushing forward.”