Shelly Blackman has two simple requests for anyone touched by the short life of her adored son, O’Neal.
“If you know somebody who is in need, or if you know somebody who needs a friend, be that friend,” she said March 12.
“I want them to remember him as somebody who never gave up.”
O’Neal lived a life packed with 22 years of heartwarming grins and selfless acts. He was a best friend to brother Keaton, who lives with autism, and a constant source of inspiration to Mom. And, as his mother is starting to note, he was somewhat of a local celebrity in his stomping grounds of Wolfville.
“He was the most kind, generous kid I’ve ever met. He always worried about everybody else before himself, especially me,” she said, powering through cracks in her voice.
“He was full of life. He lived life to the fullest, didn’t miss out on anything.”
It pained Shelly to speak of O’Neal in the past tense after losing him March 7, only days shy of his 23rd birthday.
But she pushed through the pain for her son, to share bits of his story.
“He never complained. He loved going to school. He loved getting up and getting out, doing things,” she recalls.
“He hated sitting at home. He always wanted to be out with his friends and going to movies or going to paint at the Clayground in Wolfville.”
O’Neal, who was born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, started using a wheelchair at nine years old. He joined Acadia University’s S.M.I.L.E. (Sensory Motor Leadership Experience) program at the age of five and, later, grew up to become an advocate for individuals living with disabilities.
“He loved the S.M.I.L.E. program. He was mad if he ever had to miss any of that,” said Blackman.
His family has found strength in the outpouring of support that they’ve received since news of O’Neal’s death rippled through the community once graced with his beaming grin.
“There’s a lot of people that he knows that I wouldn’t know,” she said.
“It’s pretty incredible to know that he touched so many lives.”
O’Neal was enrolled in his fifth year of studies at Acadia University and on track to graduate this year.
“He taught me a lot about patience, never giving up on what you wanted to do and trying to be positive every day as much as you can,” said Blackman.
“He taught me how to do things I didn’t even think I could do.”
Kate Trevors knew O’Neal as an accessibility advocate and friend to all. She said there were many heart-wrenching moments at his funeral service March 10, including Keaton’s song for his brother and impromptu speeches by friends.
Friend to all
“One young lady talked about how she’d been bullied in school and he helped her through that. Here he is in a wheelchair… living with this Duchene Muscular Dystrophy and he’s helping somebody else,” said Trevors.
“His spirit was so deep and so strong. He knew how to talk to people, and he was so much fun. He laughed and carried on.”
Trevors fondly remembers O’Neal’s seemingly innate way of connecting with people.
“He knew everybody’s story. He was really a people person. Everybody was drawn to him. He was so contagiously and infectiously happy,” she said.
The Horton High grad started a Wheelchair Dare fundraiser during his time with the Axcess Acadia inclusive post-secondary education program to raise awareness of what it’s like to get around campus in a wheelchair.
Acadia in mourning
Dr. Peter Ricketts, president and vice-chancellor of Acadia University, described O’Neal as a “loved member” of the Wolfville and Acadia communities in a letter released March 8.
“He continued to make a meaningful impact through his dynamic presence and activism,” the letter reads.
“True to the generosity of his spirit… he was unrelenting in his determination to raise our collective consciousness about accessibility and disability issues.
It’s hard to tell exactly how many lives O’Neal Blackman touched, but one thing for certain is that Trevors counts hers among them.
“No matter what your situation is, you can always take a minute and help someone else. He was the kind of guy that would do that,” she said.
“We could all learn to do that. It would be a big help to our fellow man.”
Donations in O’Neal’s memory can be made to Muscular Dystrophy Canada.
Did you know?
A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to help ease the financial burden the Blackman family is dealing with following O’Neal’s passing. Learn more here.