JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Ra'Shad Solomon is in a battle with cerebral palsy that seldom lets up, but these days he feels he's winning more often than losing.
A lot of it comes from not letting his condition define who he is or what he hopes to become.
Solomon, 25, wants to help others with disabilities achieve the same kind of feeling. Through "Comfortable With Myself," an organization he started last year, he's reaching out to the disabled to offer encouragement.
Being comfortable with himself, Solomon freely admits, did not come easily.
"I had problems when I was growing up accepting who I am," he said. The Jacksonville native has spent a lot of his life in a wheelchair, and he grew up with a sense that the wheelchair was all that many people saw.
He has had a total of nine surgeries on his legs, hips and back.
Pain is a constant. Depression occasionally overwhelmed him, largely because he didn't see much potential for someone with his challenges. In junior high, he attempted suicide by overdosing on prescription drugs.
Solomon's outlook began to change as a junior in high school. He took a fashion design class at Ed White and became interested in the fashion world. He saw dressing well as a way to gain acceptance, and maybe he was right. He got a "Best Dressed" award that year.
And he decided he wanted to become a model, or as he specifically puts it, "a model with disabilities."
Though he hasn't had much success, Solomon has held onto that dream. He's recently found encouragement through the Beautiful Bodies competition at The Jacksonville Landing.
Contestants are asked to define beauty in an abstract way, said Jasmine Rhey, the event's co-creator, in any four categories: art, fashion, fitness and dance.
"We came up with the concept because we wanted to change the concept of beauty," Rhey said. "It's an open-ended concept, giving contestants the freedom to create something that expresses how they feel beautiful."
Solomon got a phone call from Max Sturdivant a week before the July 2 qualifying round, encouraging him to enter in the fashion category. Sturdivant, known as Dr. Fitness to Jacksonville radio listeners, was Solomon's personal trainer for more than two years.
"I said, 'I don't think people in a wheelchair have ever done that before,' " Solomon said. "He said, 'Then you can be the first.'?"
Solomon chose not to model for the qualifying round. Instead, he went onstage and talked about how beauty is not defined by your abilities. The presentation was a little short of 10 minutes, he said.
He received a standing ovation, and qualified for the finals. But whatever the outcome won't affect Solomon's determination to become "a model of persistence" through Comfortable With Myself.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't wonder what it would be like without a disability," Solomon said. "But I don't let it beat me up anymore."
The group is still in its formative stages, and Solomon is using Facebook as the primary platform for getting the word out.
Its 10 or so members meet every other Friday at the Northside home Solomon shares with his mother, Cynthia Collins, and his younger brother, Javone, who is 18 and also has cerebral palsy.
Participation is not limited to those with cerebral palsy, a disorder that can affect such things as body movement, muscle control, coordination and posture. Lupus, depression, spina bifida, sickle cell anemia, leukemia and HIV are among the topics currently being addressed in meetings.
It's for anyone struggling to be comfortable with himself "no matter what your problems are," Solomon said. "A lot of people are scared to talk about their problems. We want to reach out and be there for people who are suffering inside."
He hopes that Comfortable With Myself will evolve into a nonprofit "where everybody can come for support and leave your troubles behind."
Most important, he wants to be a role model for his younger brother.
"Javone is my inspiration," Solomon said, "to put people in a mind-set of what a disability is. I would hate for him to go through what I've been through.
"To be comfortable with yourself — that's what a model is in my eyes."
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com