Josh Burger wasn't expected to get much out of life. The disease that made it unlikely he would live past birth also limited his growth and movement. But 24 years later, he's a high school graduate, a local public speaker and an inspiration to children and adults in the Tri-Valley.
Burger, a Pleasanton resident, has Atelosteogenesis Syndrome Type III, which impedes regular bone growth. He was born with underdeveloped, stunted bones and disjointed limbs, which has led to numerous hospitalizations throughout his life.
When sharing his life story to teens at local high schools or adults in nonprofits, he starts before his birth -- at the moment his parents learned of his deformed bones and were given an option: Give birth and work through many challenges, or abort?
His parents decided to give birth, hoping against doctors' warnings that he may not live through the night. But Burger, now known across the Tri-Valley for his uplifting speeches on living life to the fullest, survived a tough medical battle and is now 24.
"I'm so thankful to be alive. My life is full. I know that people talk about quality of life, but who can judge that quality? Well, I believe that because God loves us, every life has quality. I've been able to do as much in my life as many normal people," he said in one of those inspirational speeches, a Tedx event at Greenbrook Elementary in Danville when he was 22.
Burger, a 2010 Amador Valley High graduate, often says in his talks he is one of five people known to be living with this disease. About 24 have ever been diagnosed with the genetic condition, according to the National Library of Medicine, and most die within a year of birth.
He said his parents tried to give him a normal life. When it was time to go to school, Burger went to Pleasanton public schools. When Sunday came around, he would go to church with his family, coasting along in a motorized wheelchair.
It wasn't until Burger turned 13 that he realized he had a special gift. He was volunteering as a Vacation Bible School counselor at Valley Community Church, and his students wanted to raise money for a foundation.
They had some ideas, but he went to them and asked: Why not raise money for wheelchairs for children with disabilities? After all, he said, his first wheelchair was a donation from the Rotary Club of Pleasanton, and it changed his life.
His group raised $3,750, enough money for 50 wheelchairs through the Wheelchair Foundation, which donates wheelchairs to children across the globe. Burger said after that day, he knew he was meant to spend his life helping others.
Throughout his teenage years, he attended The Painted Turtle, a summer camp for children with disabilities in the foothills of the Sierra Pelona Mountains. When he was old enough, he returned as a counselor and spent weeks with the singular goal to raise campers' spirits.
His campers have serious medical conditions and had rarely been able to enjoy summer camp like their peers. Some felt isolated from others their age, and some have been bullied because of their differences.
Burger said he dealt with his fair share of bullying when he was young.
"The main part of why I go back is making these kids smile," he said. "They didn't choose to be born this way. That's just how they are."
Burger said he once shaved his hair down to a mohawk, then bleached it. Once, he wore a dress and made an entire bunk of kids burst out in laughter. "They loved every second of it."
By the time he was 18, Burger had brought his message of inclusiveness to the public stage. He made his first appearance as a public speaker at the Angel Stadium of Anaheim for a crowd of 250.
Now he gives about 20 talks a year to schools and nonprofits.
When he's at churches, he acts as a voice for his father's Pleasanton-based organization, Valley Pregnancy Center, and talks about his parents' decision to decline abortion. When he's at schools, he focuses on fighting bullying and normalizing disabilities.
He has long-term goals, including ones that may seem like a reach. For example, he hopes to get a car retrofitted so he can drive it with hand controls.
He said mostly he tries to get people to think about their lives differently, particularly by helping them see some obstacles as opportunities. Other times, he hopes he can just help others enjoy every day they've been given.
"I was not supposed to be alive, so I take every opportunity to bring out the positivity in people," he said. "I always feel like it's my duty to get them to smile or to laugh."
* Burger does photography at his church and does aerial drone videography of natural scenes.
* His new wheelchair travels up to 12 miles per hour.
* He does some talks at charities pro-bono; he's paid for others.
* In addition to Amador Valley, he attended Pleasanton Middle School and Vintage Hills Elementary.
* He was inspired to raise money for wheelchairs after meeting Cheryl Barnes, then-director of the Wheelchair Foundation's Washington, D.C. chapter.