A motivational speaker and model, Tamara Mena's life changed like she would have never imagined after she suffered a car accident at age 19 that left her paralyzed and, sadly, killed her boyfriend who saved her life. Now, as a spinal cord injury survivor, Tamara is involved with raising awareness and educating others about spinal cord injuries. "It changes your life completely," Tamara told us. "It’s not just walking. It impairs your bladder, bowel...everything."
On May 4, Tamara will be among those in Santa Clarita, CA, participating in the Wings for Life World Run, bringing awareness to spinal cord injury and helping fund research to find a cure. We spoke with Tamara to learn more about Wings for Life and her journey.
You grew up in Mexico for part of your life. What was that like?
I was really fortunate to go to a private school. I was able to learn English and Spanish in Mexico, and I lived with my mom – she was a single mom. I was very close with [my] cousins. I’m an only child, but I grew up with cousins. I honestly had a very nice childhood, but things were difficult too. As I remember, when I started to get older, I knew my number one goal – my focus – was always school. My mom always emphasized how important my education was, and that’s why she worked really hard to put me in a private school.
I think she taught me a lot of great values from early on, and that school system was really difficult, too. It was hard at first. I had to get tutors, and the next thing I knew, I had one of the highest GPA’s. All this is really important because I think it’s a lot of what helped me with my success when I came to this country at 13. When we moved here at 13, I didn’t know anyone. I had some family, but I didn’t know anyone. So it was just really difficult and a really difficult age to come. At 13, I definitely didn’t want to be here. I kind of thought I owned the world.
What would you say was the hardest part about coming to the U.S.? Because it certainly was a big change.
I think not knowing the system. I didn’t know how it all worked to go to college and the school system is really different. I think that was really difficult. But also, I think just not knowing people. That was difficult too. Not really having a support system in school, that was difficult. But I relied a lot, I think, at that age, on mentors and school teachers. I think those were what were really valuable until I graduated. And even now, I still have people who have mentored me. So I think that was difficult – not knowing the system all in all. Definitely [the] education [system], but just in general, just everything worked so differently and not understanding it.
Another thing that was really, really difficult for me was coming to a place that was so diverse. My school had all sorts of cultures and I had no experience with other cultures, so that was like, whoa! People are really different here. But on the upside of it, I loved that I felt like people were less judgmental, and they really got to know you for who you are versus what you have or what family you come from. That was just a breath of fresh air for me.
Definitely! So you went through this terrible accident, which thankfully you’re here and you made it through, but how would you say it’s changed you?
I think the biggest thing by far is it heightened and intensified my appreciation for life and my gratitude. I definitely appreciated my life before, but not nearly as much whatsoever. I truly, truly value everything that I do have, not just life in general. Then the second biggest one [is] it really has allowed me to believe in myself – like truly believe in my potential. It’s crazy to say this, but going through this life-changing experience and what I did to get through it, is what has allowed me to believe in myself so much. I was always a go-getter, but I didn’t believe in myself the way I do now.
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