In grade school, she was known as “the stuttering vampire girl.” With eye teeth that protruded from her mouth, Amanda Welliver rarely smiled. She was always picked last by her peers for sports or class activities and she walked around with her head stooped down. Her hair was once lit on fire. Another time, kids locked her up in a locker.
Life was painful at home as well. Welliver’s parents were divorced and she was raised by a mother who was emotionally unavailable. She was never hugged, was given lots of chores and was told constantly that she was expensive, unattractive and time-consuming. Welliver felt like an ugly human mistake.
“One day, my mother and I had a very bad disagreement,” says the six-foot 39-year old. “She said ‘You’ve really got to pay attention to what you ask me. Make sure it’s important.’ From then on, I felt anything I had to say wasn’t important. I started to analyze everything and when I would finally speak, I had so much tenseness in my throat that I would t-t-t-trip over words. My stutter got so bad that I could barely speak.”
Welliver felt she didn’t fit in anywhere and, at age 12, decided she would help everyone by ending her life. She says a voice inside her stopped the attempt, telling her she was here for a purpose. That’s when she decided to turn her life around.
“I had a goal. I wanted to be happy. So I started doing things to help myself,” says Welliver. “It started with a window. I was leaning against it and it was pouring rain outside. I really hated my life, but I looked for something good, and thought, ‘I’ll bet there is someone in the world who would love to have a window to keep them dry.’ And then it was more than a window. It was protecting me.”
She calls it the Art of Appreciation. During the day, she looked for five things she liked about her life. Every time she noticed something, she would write it down, and the more things she found, the more excited she’d become. It became a game.
Welliver also wanted better marks in school, but had always been too afraid to ask questions. One day in math class, she forced herself to play “Itsy, bitsy spider…” with her fingers walking up the side of her head until her hand was raised in the air. She stuttered so badly she couldn’t get the question out, but in another class, she tried again. Each time, it got easier. Eventually, students started choosing to sit beside her in class and people started joining her for lunch. Welliver’s grandfather paid for her to get braces to straighten her teeth, she became part of the annual school fashion show, made the cheer team and, by senior year, was made squad captain.
Then, after graduation, a traumatic experience ripped her world apart. She was raped and left in a ditch. Her stutter came back even worse and she got in trouble with the law. Working odd jobs with no money, she fought back again and landed a job with an Edmonton modeling agency.
“I would see these parents bring their teenagers in and they so desperately wanted their child to feel beautiful,” says Welliver. “And I was teaching them how to walk, how to turn and how to pose, but it was all on the outside. I wanted them to feel beautiful inside as well.”
The day Welliver learned that one of her students had committed suicide because she wasn’t getting modeling work is the day Welliver left the agency to start her own business, Paradigm Esteem. She moved into her father’s cabin and wrote down all the methods she’d used to help herself, creating her first textbook. She called it I Am Beautiful Because…
“One of my exercises involved brushing my teeth in front of a mirror,” says Welliver of how she named the book. “I noticed I would do anything not to look in the mirror because it was too hard to look at my reflection. So I forced myself to look and say ‘I am beautiful.’ A year later, it was ‘I am beautiful because’ and I would come up with reasons of why I am beautiful.”
In 1999, the motivational speaker and coach started holding weekend workshops while working full-time as a server. In 2003, she taught an Aboriginal boy about to join a gang. His mother, who worked for Aboriginal Affairs, was so amazed by the change in her son that she invited Welliver to make a presentation to the department. A year later, Welliver held her first workshop on a reserve. Ninety-five per cent of her work is now with Métis and First Nations. She also gives talks to students in high schools, speeches and workshops across Canada and in parts of the United States. Her programs are recognized by organizations such as the Public School Board, which gives high school credits upon completion, Edmonton Social Services and Indian Affairs Alberta. She gets all of her work through word-of-mouth.
“I believe there is a silent self-esteem epidemic going on right now,” says Welliver, who sees, among other things, the negative impacts of the growing trend of cyber-bullying on teens. “Self-esteem is not learned. It’s practised. And we’re not talking about it enough.”
One of her main programs is a self-esteem fashion show. Students are often very nervous before they go on stage behind the curtain, which Welliver calls “the wall of life.”
Two years ago, she was honoured in New York with a Stevie Award for Best Canadian Entrepreneur. More recently she was offered an international radio show.
“The first thing I said to them was, ‘But I stutter!’” says Welliver. “And she said, ‘We love it because it will make your advice real.’”
Welliver’s favourite quote is ‘Whatever your past has been, you have a spotless future.”
“Nobody’s perfect. We all know that, but you should strive for excellence within yourself because you are worth it. We are all worth it.”
Lesley MacDonald is the producer and host of the Global Woman of Vision series. Stories can be seen the first Monday of every month in the News Hour at 6 p.m. on Global Edmonton and online at GlobalTVEdmonton.com.