Jon Seyster (http://jonseyster.com), 32, of Simi Valley, has discovered his passion. Drawing great strength from his spirituality, he lives with cerebral palsy and hearing loss, “but I don’t allow that to stop me from living an amazing life,” as he wrote on the flyer announcing his book, Jon’s Peaceful Thoughts. A one-man powerhouse, he’s a graphic designer, photographer, actor, author and designer of his own jewelry line, who cycles all over the country riding with and supporting injured veterans.
Jon is all about empowering and inspiring other people. His book, Jon’s Peaceful Thoughts, shares his photography, designs and writings, collected over the last 17 years. He dedicated this book to the US Armed Forces to thank them for their bravery and sacrifices. He chose to donate a portion of the proceeds from the book to Ride 2 Recovery, who make a difference in the lives of wounded veterans with cycling rehabilitation.
Jon used a photo and poem he created for a postcard, Helping Others, that he personally delivered to veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC, and at other events. It reads: “Thank you for helping all of us in America to have our freedoms. I appreciate the sacrifices you have made. You are America’s special heroes. All my thanks and best wishes for a good recovery.”
Jon and his mother Sue attended a Ride 2 Recovery event at the Santa Monica Veterans Administration in 2008, and delivered these Helping Others cards. Sue has raised Jon alone, since a divorce when he was a teen. They’re exceptionally close, and it’s clear that this feeds her spirit.
John Wordin, founder and president of Ride 2 Recovery, invited him to participate in the following year’s ride. He had participated in power wheelchair soccer before, but never cycled before, as this would be a major challenge.
“I told him,” Jon smiled, “‘remember, Dude, I’m going to college. But, after I graduate, I’ll come and ride with you guys. I promise.’”
After earning two consecutive AA degrees at Moorpark Community College (graphic design and photography) in May 2011, Jon started training on a therapy hand-cycle. This therapy bike is intended to ride around a parking lot; not hundreds of miles. Two push bars were added to this 75-pound, 7-gear bike so that others could help push Jon if needed.
Ride 2 Recovery (https://ride2recovery.com) is a nonprofit with the motto “Saving Lives by Restoring Hope and Purpose,” that organizes bike rides as long as 600 miles for disabled vets, providing them with training, specialized custom-built bicycles and recumbent bikes. Jon participated in several local rides on that heavy bike, and a few longer ones before he was outfitted with a custom three-wheeled hand-cycle that Ride 2 Recovery designed and built, named to represent Jon, “Cour d’Or” (“Heart of Gold”).
The Ride 2 Recovery has benefitted him, “not just by helping others, but also my cardiovascular and upper respiratory system has improved so much and my speech has gotten clearer, louder and stronger. I got new waterproof hearing aids too, which provided a hearing experience that I have not had before.”
“On the Texas Challenge in 2013, I was going from San Antonio to Fort Worth, and I met Tim Brown, who lost three of his limbs; his left arm was reattached. They customized a hand-cycle with a glove for him that fits to the hand-pedal and Tim is able to cycle independently.”
“Public figures come out and ride,” he commented, “and there’s great community support; children at schools…we do school assemblies. It’s like one big family. Being on the bike for them is therapy.”
Jon fits perfectly into the Ride 2 Recovery family, Sue explained, “They treat him like one of them. The girls all kiss him on the forehead. Between Tim and Jon…they always have all the girls around. These veterans really are grateful.”
Moved by the memory of vets being welcomed back home with such gratitude, Jon shared, “They don’t want to talk about the past. What they do want to talk about is what’s coming up next, about the future.”
“You can see how healing it is,” Sue remembered, “to have communities acknowledge and thank them. You see the tears.”
He considers the Ride 2 Recovery 9/11 Challenge “an experience of a lifetime.”
Jon reminisced, “When we did that 9/11 challenge… it was seven days, 580 miles. I completed about half of it. When we got to the Pentagon, everyone cried. How could you not?”
“He only missed one day,” Sue clarified, “the day they climbed the summit in Pennsylvania. It was raining. His bike was too heavy to push; he rode along and cheered the other riders from the van.” When Jon’s heart is in something, his enthusiasm is contagious.
The emotion of this ride, on the anniversary of 9/11, with survivors and veterans present, many that went to war right after that, felt enormous, before the grateful crowds. Sue recalls, “When the group arrived at the Pentagon on their bikes, the main mechanic came running back through the crowd to us, ‘Jon Seyster, we need you!’ So the guys pushed him on his bike through the crowd, yelling, ‘make a hole!’”
“A hole did open, and standing in the center was US Marine General James Amos. He was waiting for me! There were my fellow riders giving me a standing ovation. I felt so honored. I told him, ‘Thank you, sir, for serving our country. I’m here to ride with our brave men and women to say thank you for serving and for their sacrifices so I can be free.’”
Sue continued, “The General shook his hand, and gave him a Challenger coin; the coin is passed palm-to-palm to someone special. It challenges the recipient that ‘when I see you next, you’d better have your coin with you or you have to buy the next beer.’ It’s an honor to receive.”
Jon grinned, “The others told me that I can’t give up that Challenger coin; it’s a general’s coin.” He was told that the coins follow the rank of their givers.
Recently, Jon’s acting career has been keeping him busy. Jon has been in commercials, Netflix shows, MTV series, a web series and a short film. His profile is on IMDB.com (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm7404404/ ) and he’s a proud member of the Screen Actors Guild.
“In 2014 it started,” Jon explained, “as I needed some money coming in. A friend of mine is a producer; I said, ‘I’d like to try this. How do I get in?’ She had me work for three days on her show as a special needs actor and I became eligible for Union status. So that’s how I got started with that. I have an agent as well who specializes in diversity and disabled performers on TV and movies. I got several background jobs in commercials and TV shows. I did my first co-starring role last year, called ‘Con Man’; it’s a web series with Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion. I’m part of the LA Conservatory. The American Film Institute reached out looking for someone in a wheelchair to play a lead role in a student film. I auditioned and got the lead as Henry. Because of that, I have more auditions and jobs coming up.”
He’s very clear about why he pursues acting. “I want to inspire people with disabilities… to let them know that there are no limits, anything is possible. Don’t let anything put you down; just keep going, even if it’s hard, just keep trying.”
“The short student film I just did, called Space, is 17 minutes, and I had to put in so many different emotions. I had to play a frustrated disabled person; I had to cry, laugh, do all kinds of things.”
“I have a story to tell you,” he leaned closer. “On that film project, the one thing that was difficult: I had to cry a lot, really blubber. At the audition, I was able to do it, and then after that I had a harder time. My mom reminded me, ‘Your friend Kenai is dying of cancer; she’s only fourteen years old.’” The memory moves him to tears.
Sue takes up the story, “I said, ‘think about Kenai and how important she is, and how she’s touched your life.’ He started crying. He told the director about her as he wept; the director said, ‘roll camera and keep it rolling’.”
“It took nine takes,” Jon goes on, “and it was so exhausting, but thinking about Kenai helped me to blubber, and do a great job. They were so impressed.”
Jon would like to someday start a non-profit organization to help support his mission to educate and empower others.
“I would like to share this: no matter what you do in life, stay true to yourself, and deliver whatever message that you’ve learned and that you believe could help someone change their life for the better. I want to inspire people to see that life is important; don’t take it for granted. Take one step at a time, one moment at a time. Enjoy it and embrace it.”
What’s next for this powerhouse? Along with continuing his business and participating in upcoming Ride2Recovery events, he’s co-organizing a one-day Ride 2 Recovery Project Hero Honor Ride(with free registration for injured veterans and first responders, public welcome).