Centre native and cerebral palsy awareness advocate AJ Starr said he couldn’t remember much about his first trip to Washington, D.C. He was just a toddler back then.
His second trip, however, is one he won’t soon forget.
The 22-year-old Starr was one of the featured guests of honor on June 8 at the Cinderella Ball, an event held at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in our nation’s capital.
The program, spearheaded by The House, Inc. President Helen McCormick, initially kicked off in 2006. The non-profit function is intended to inspire middle and high school students with disabilities and give them an opportunity to attend a prom-like event.
“We had a great time,” Starr said of his second Washington trip with his family. “We got to meet John Wall of the Washington Wizards, Pierre Garcon of the Washington Redskins, the members of Mary Mary (gospel duo) and J.R. Martinez from Dancing with the Stars. It was exciting.”
Starr wasn’t just one of the guests at the ball. He also received the prestigious “No Excuses” award for overcoming his battle with cerebral palsy. The award is named after the book written by congenital amputee Kyle Maynard, who is famous for crawling to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.
Last year’s “No Excuses” award recipient was former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand. LeGrand was paralyzed after making a tackle on the field in 2010.
Starr, who recently graduated from the University of Alabama, is an equipment manager with the Crimson Tide football team. His relationship with former Tide quarterback AJ McCarron gained national attention last year.
Starr was the just the person McCormick was looking for to provide her students at The House, Inc., with another motivational story. She said her son, Todd McCormick, the Executive Director of The House Student Leadership Center, “came up with the idea of having AJ” come to Washington.
“He saw his story on ESPN in January, then he called me and said, ‘Oh my gosh. I’ve got our story.’”
Helen McCormick and her students then researched Starr’s story. They were inspired by his courage.
“I told my kids we’re going to find a way to reach AJ,” she said. “We’re not going to make excuses. We’re going to keep going.”
It just so happened Helen McCormick’s husband, Ron (Vice President of The House Student Leadership Center) has family in Alabama. His brother C. Delaine Mountain is an attorney in Tuscaloosa and a Crimson Tide fan.
“I called Delaine and said ‘I have a really weird request. I need to reach AJ Starr,’” Helen McCormick said. “I’d been trying through the sports department and through the general line for the school, but Delaine found out how to reach AJ for me. He sent me the contact information. I dialed the number and AJ answered the phone, and we went on from there.”
Helen McCormick said she and AJ Starr made an immediate connection from her phone call.
“I said ‘AJ, this is Helen McCormick in Woodbridge, Va. Have you ever heard the story of Cinderella?’ He said ‘Yes ma’am, I’ve heard that story.’ I said ‘AJ, I’d like to invite you to the Cinderella Ball. It’s going to be in Washington, D.C. Have you ever been to the nation’s capital?’ He just laughed, and I told him how to go on the previous years of our website, acinderellaball.com. You can see where Mary Mary, Jordin Sparks and Ruben Studdard have joined us as our talent. He said ‘Wow, Mrs. McCormick. That sounds like a big deal.’ I said ‘It is a big deal and we’d like to present you with the “No Excuses” award.
“He was so very humble. He said, ‘Mrs. Helen, how did you hear about me?’ I told him ‘You’re famous.’”
AJ Starr’s uncle and The Real AJ Foundation spokesman John Starr was one of the family members who attended the Cinderella Ball. He said the response to AJ was “unbelievable.”
“He (AJ) had the opportunity to walk out on the red carpet and shook the hands of some of the kids with disabilities. He handed them a bracelet, and that was really touching,” John Starr said. “He was dancing at the ball, and we were all taking pictures. He did such a great job talking with individuals and inspiring those kids. His maturity was unbelievable that day.”
More importantly, AJ’s story was a hit to those in attendance.
“When they played the ESPN clip, you could see the tears,” John Starr said.
Helen McCormick said that night was special because of AJ’s attitude.
“On the video, he said he didn’t know if he would be able to go to school because of his disability,” Helen McCormick said. “Todd talked to him (on stage) and said ‘AJ, what we say at the school is the word ‘yet.’ Did I hear you graduated from Alabama this spring?’ He went ‘Yes’, and the place went wild. ‘AJ, we know that word yet is a stumbling block for some people, but we believe it’s a diving board for you. You’re going to graduate school this fall.’ The place erupted into more applause.
“The big word we use with our students is ‘yet.’ You may not have a job yet. You may not have the finances yet. You don’t have a break yet, but we know what that word yet means. It means everything is possible. The House is going to work hard for their college access. It’s going to work hard for their job. It’s going to work hard for all the students. That’s why we do the Cinderella Ball.”
When asked if AJ Starr will be invited back to the Cinderella Ball, Helen McCormick said, “AJ’s always invited back.”
“He’s an alumni now,” she said. “He’ll come back and present the “No Excuses” award to our next recipient. We’ll have the red carpet out once again for him.”
Next up for AJ Starr is a local event dubbed “The Hometown Kickoff.” The event, promoting The Real AJ Foundation, is set for Saturday at the Recreational Outreach Center (ROC) in Centre at 6 p.m. The guest speaker is former University of Alabama football player Rudy Griffin. Donations are $25 per individual, with tables (8 seats) set at $175.
For more information, contact Neal Starr at (256) 504-6825 or Sara Starr at (256) 504-6702.
“We’re real excited about that (Hometown Kickoff),” John Starr said. “We really want people here to be a part of what we’re trying to do. We’re really excited about our guest speaker Rudy Griffin. He’s got an amazing story himself, and we’re excited about him sharing that story.”
AJ Starr said he’s looking forward to his next event.
“It’ll be another opportunity where we can share the story about teaching others with disabilities and how they can be overcome,” he said. “We’re just trying to make this about helping people with disabilities in any way we can. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for us to keep going in the right direction and spread the word of what we’re trying to accomplish.”