- Associated Press - Saturday, June 21, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - About seven years ago, Allison Parcell and Tanner Sigmon noticed that one of the desks in their fifth-grade classroom was not like the others.

“We see a tiny desk and a tall chair. We’re thinking maybe a midget is coming,” said Sigmon, 18. “And then James comes in, and we see he has no arms, and he starts to write with his feet.”

Since that day, the three of them have been friends, supporting one another through tumultuous teenage years.

James Dennehy, now 18, was born without arms in India. He was adopted when he was 2½ years old by Mike and Sharon Dennehy. Now, he’s graduating from high school and going on to Christopher Newport University to pursue his dream of becoming a teacher.

“It’s going to be weird not seeing them constantly. But our friendship is strong enough to keep in touch,” James Dennehy said.

Parcell will be attending the University of Virginia, and Sigmon will be going to George Mason University. The three friends graduated from Hanover High School this month at the Siegel Center in Richmond.

Dennehy said his path to self-acceptance was a slow one.

“Through middle school, I really struggled with being armless and why I was created that way - what purpose I served in society because I wasn’t normal,” he said.

Through working at Camp Hope Richmond, a weeklong Christian summer camp for inner-city youths, he found his sense of purpose.

“When I was at that camp, it kind of all just clicked one day,” said Dennehy, who has volunteered there during the summer for the past four years.

“Oh my goodness, why am I letting it define me and holding me back from what I want to do?” he said of his birth defect.

On Friday, the three friends sat around the kitchen counter in the Dennehys’ spacious and cozy house in Hanover County, recounting numerous jokes they have made about Dennehy’s condition.

Dennehy recalled hiking with Sigmon and getting stuck in a pit with no apparent way out. Through some thoughtful maneuvering, he managed to extricate himself.

“It was funny for a couple of seconds,” Sigmon said.

Dennehy said he would tell the kids at the camp - who were speculating wildly about his condition - that he had lost his arms in a shark attack. He even joked that he lost his arms because he didn’t eat his vegetables.

He said it helped him get closer to the campers. By sharing the obstacles he faced on his path to accepting his condition, Dennehy helped the children open up about the hardships they had faced.

“We all find our places,” Dennehy said. “You are who you are. You can serve a purpose no matter your physical or mental hindrance.”

His self-acceptance is expressed through self-love and self-mockery.

“You play the hand you were dealt, or not dealt,” he joked.

Dennehy recounted discussing Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” in history class.

“That’s my book,” he joked then.

“I’ve never seen my history teacher laugh so hard,” Dennehy said.

Parcell and Sigmon said that despite his disability, Dennehy is able to outperform people with arms.

“We had to draw trees. James’ tree was the best in the class. It was displayed in front of the school,” Parcell said.

“You’re a better driver,” Sigmon said to Dennehy.

“Tanner is a scary driver,” Parcell added.

Dennehy said he shrugs off the misunderstandings that arise from his disability. He said many strangers do double-takes seeing him driving with his feet. Ashland Police Chief Doug Goodman, who Dennehy said is a family friend, sent his picture to the officers so they would recognize the young man who controls the steering wheel with his feet.

Dennehy has 11 siblings, eight of whom are also adopted. His adopted older brother, George, was born in Romania without arms. George went on to become a professional musician and motivational speaker. His younger sister Hope was adopted from Thailand without any limbs.

“Our Christian faith teaches us that God is pleased when we reach out to the ones unlovely to the world,” Sharon Dennehy said.

Mike Dennehy remembers James’ transition to life in Connecticut after living in an orphanage in India. He recounted a time when James kicked a plate of food toward him to get his attention.

“When a new child comes from another country, we give them a lot of runway. Everything in the world was different,” Mike said.

But Mike quickly saw how resilient James was. He remembered when James’ older brother took a toy from him.

“I said, ‘James is too tiny to mess with George,’?” Mike said. “Then James had George on the ground. And James has George’s head between his legs. . That was the day I knew he was going to be fine.”

Sigmon said he does not view James as a disabled person.

“He is able to reach people without arms,” Sigmon said. “When James is in my dreams, he always has arms. He can do everything we can do and can’t do.”

Parcell echoed the sentiment.

“I don’t think people view James as disabled but as an inspiration,” she said.

___

Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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