The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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May 10, 2012

New legs provide fresh start for Carthage's Haven Shepherd

CARTHAGE, Mo. — Many kids in the Carthage elementary school track meet changed into their running shoes before the competition began.

Haven Shepherd changed into her running legs.

Shepherd, a third grader at Steadley Elementary School who has been without both feet most of her life, raced two years ago in this meet on regular prosthetic legs but fell during her first race.

“She got to running really fast and tripped over her toes and fell really hard,” said Sandy Shepherd, her mother. “She knew everyone was laughing at her, and she was devastated.”

“I felt really embarrassed and kind of nervous,” Haven said. “I’m happy that that’s in the past and I learned from my mistakes. I’m really happy today.”

Haven raced on Wednesday for the first time in prosthetic legs actually designed for running.

“They are almost like a metal foot, and they bounce,” Shelly said. “She has to move all the time because you can’t really stand still.

“Before, she was all into fashion. She hadn’t wanted those ugly running legs until she fell, and then she was like, ‘Maybe I need those.’ ”

Haven received the running legs, estimated to cost approximately $40,000, through a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which helps individuals with physical challenges get involved and stay involved in sports.

“Challenged Athletes has done so much for me,” Haven said. “They’ve given me the chance to compete with other athletes by getting me my running legs. I want to say thank you to them.

“I want to thank all the teachers who have been trying to help me and support me. ... Some of the coaches in PE will tell me I have to run only one lap, but I will do that only if my legs are really hurting and I have to take a break for a while. I want to be like the other kids, and I want to do stuff all my other friends do.”

Haven actually ran two races on Wednesday, first the 50 meters and then the 100. She didn’t fall either time, and that infectious smile never left her face.

“I got to run with other people and see all the other people who were supporting me and telling me my legs were cool,” Haven said. “My friends are actually kind of jealous because they are like, ‘I want some of those.’ ”

“Honestly she looked more relaxed the second race, so that was good,” Shelly said.

Haven, originally from Vietnam, was adopted by the Shepherd family when she was 19 months old and a true miracle baby. She lost both of her feet and her lower legs when she survived a family suicide attempt.

Haven, who turned 9 in March, tells the story.

“My parents (both married to other people) had an affair and then strapped bombs to themselves,” she said. “I guess they kind of held me by the waist, and it killed them and blew off my legs.”

The Shepherds have made no attempt to hide the truth from Haven.

“We always talked about it around her because I didn’t ever want there to be a time with a big, dark secret that we sat down and had to tell her,” Shelly said. “She got used to hearing it from the time she was little. It’s part of who she is. It’s her story, and I knew that we would never keep it from her.

“There are going to be things that she has to deal with ... the fact that I’m handicapped, my parents tried to kill me, but we always talk to her about how they did it out of love, they didn’t know any better, they thought they were doing the right thing, and God had a plan for your life. That’s why you’re with us. Teenage years may be harder, but right now, she’s all good with it.”

The fact that Haven wound up with the Shepherds is another miracle.

Shelly and Rob Shepherd, who have two sons and four daughters, went to Vietnam with friends Pam and Randy Cope, who founded Touch A Life Foundation in 1999.

“My wife was wanting to adopt for a couple of years, and I somewhat resisted because we had so many kids already,” Rob said. “With the economy and stuff, I was more concerned with keeping everything else going and just didn’t know if we could really do it or not.

“We ended up going with Pam and Randy Cope to Vietnam just to get a taste of what adoption was about. It was a journey for sure ... long flights (to Saigon), long van rides up into the mountains of Da Nang, and when we reached her little village, we were on motorcycles to get there.

“The minute we got there, Haven went straight to my wife right off the bat. It was a pretty emotional thing for me. I knew at that point this is what we want to do.”

However, Haven was coming to the United States to be adopted by another family.

“Shelly happened to be there when they handed Haven to the other family,” Rob said. “It was probably the worst moment of her life because she wanted Haven really bad.”

But five days later, the telephone rang.

“Pam and Randy called us one afternoon and said it’s not working out with the other family and would you guys be interested (in adopting Haven),” Rob said. “We immediately said yes.

“I kept telling (Shelly) when we were in Vietnam that we would have to wait our turn and God will work it out. And I’ll be durned if God didn’t work it out a few days later. He put us all through a little bit of torment.

“When they brought her to us, we had the whole family there to greet her. From the first minute, it was like she was part of the family. She was crawling on Sawyer’s back (youngest son) and Zac’s back (oldest son). All the kids were interacting just like she was one of ours. She was totally at peace, and it felt like she was where she needed to be, and we’re glad she’s here.”

“That was an adventure of a lifetime, going over there and getting her from her grandparents,” Shelly said. “It changed all our lives. It changed our grown kids’ lives. Zac was at Pittsburg State playing basketball when we got her, and I was worried they wouldn’t bond. But she wanted him, and as soon as he came off the basketball court and out of the locker room, she expected that he would have her in his arms.”

Haven certainly does her part in entertaining the family.

“I’ll lay on my back (behind a couch), get something on my legs and give a puppet show,” she said. “I like to give puppet shows.”

Next month Haven is going to New York City to attend the CAF Heroes, Heart and Hope gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. She has been chosen to be featured on stage alongside other athletes like Anthony Robles, who won the 2011 NCAA wrestling championship at 125 pounds despite having only one leg.

“It’s given her opportunities, opened doors that she never would have had, and that’s what we try to focus on all the time,” Shelly said. “Look at what you are getting to do because you don’t have feet instead of focusing on the bad part.”

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