SEBRING- A woman of indomitable spirit, Sally McDougall never let a deformed pelvis, a birth defect, from interfering with whatever goal she set for herself.
So, in 2002, when a broken foot bone and subsequent injuries left her wheelchair bound and frustrated with conventional treatments, she decided to take control of her health and her life.
Even though she uses a walker, McDougall, who turns 69 this week, has turned what might appear to some to be a handicap into a way of helping others through the "Small Steps 4 Health" Tai Chi classes she gives to residents of Edgewater Village, developmentally disabled clients at New Concepts by Visions, and at Unity of Sebring Life Enrichment Centre.
The hourlong lessons, usually provided for through a love offering, combine gentle movement exercises coordinated with breathing, positive thoughts and meditation.
A booklet she provides students includes her guide "to a healthier tomorrow," which suggests setting realistic goals and making small lifestyle changes that will become part of a daily routine.
"Her attitude and determination are admirable and contagious," said Pastor Andy Conyer, of the outgoing, compassionate woman who became a member of Unity's congregation on Oct. 20.
"The reason I can be the teacher I am is because I've been there," said McDougall, who hopes to produce a five-lesson DVD.
Because of her birth defect, McDougall had problems walking and running with other children in the small farming community in western New York where she grew up.
Then at 16, she was also diagnosed with a progressive form of arthritis.
Yet, she was well liked at school and excelled at the jobs she took as a switchboard operator, secretarial positions and working in the computer department of a manufacturing firm.
While converting data to computers for Chloride Electro Networks, she became the first woman in Caledonia, N.Y., to become a supervisor.
"That was a big deal. Women weren't bosses back then," she recalled.
McDougall moved to Highlands County in 1998 with her husband, Ian, a diabetic who passed away three years ago.
Though the couple never had children, the walls of her Sebring home are covered with photos of numerous nieces, nephews and friends that call her "Oma," an endearing term meaning "our other mother."
A proud member of the Celtic American Society of Highlands and the Women's Club of Sebring, McDougall has a green thumb, growing African violets that she donates for club fundraisers.
"There is a sale at the Women's Club of Sebring, across from Veteran's Beach, on November 1 and 2," she explained.
An avid cook, McDougall takes great pleasure in having dinner parties for friends and baking holiday gifts like her Christmas bread.
She started her current path as a teacher after attending a Women's Day of Wellness Program where she met Master Val Henry of Martial Arts America and Master Jim Robertson, who practiced holistic medicine in Sebring. From them she learned the ancient Chinese arts of Chi Kung and Tai Chi.
Tai Chi is a form of healing martial art that uses gentle, slow movements, and Chi Kung is an ancient Chinese method of exercise and meditation that is meant to balance energy, breath and movement.
"With the encouragement from Val and Jim, I realized I didn't have to accept my doctor's diagnosis," she said.
Though McDougall could barely move without being in excruciating pain, she felt drawn to the physical and spiritual training offered at Henry's dojo and found that utilizing the minimal movement she was capable of, helped her improve.
When Henry asked her to fill in as a substitute instructor, she reluctantly accepted and was pleasantly surprised to learn the students enjoyed her style of teaching.
Henry recalled, "When I met Sally she was in a wheelchair and mad at the world. She was told by her doctors that she'd never walk again. I told her to come see me."
"Sally has developed a program to help people who can exercise from a chair," said Henry. "I think she is an amazing lady. Now, she inspires others."