Everyone has a story, but some stories are more interesting than others. In fact, the stories behind this year’s crop of Extraordinary People will leave you fascinated.
Soon after brain scans following a bad car accident in early 2019, Chris Catino was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At 30 years old, he now uses his experiences and struggles with the autoimmune disease to help others open up about their own struggles, rather than letting his MS slow him down.
“The easiest way to get people talking about their challenges is to show your struggles, and I’ve had a few in my life,” Chris says. Opening up the door to conversation typically makes people more comfortable to share their own stories and start important discussions. He knows. Chris helps lead the men’s group discussions at Real Life Church in Clermont.
The men’s ministry at Real Life consists of 100-150 men who meet every Monday night and branch off into smaller group discussions to talk about what’s going on in their lives. During COVID, the meetings have transitioned to virtual. They begin with a 20-30-minute video conversation on different subjects ranging from what the pastor talked about that week during church, to a specific area of family life, to opportunities people may be considering.
“There’s a lot of personal conversations that go on too that give people outlets,” Chris says. “We just wanna provide a safe environment for guys to really tackle subjects that they might not have the opportunity to elsewhere and a lot of them kinda use that outlet to work on themselves as individuals and grow.”
Chris is also involved in a weekly “family night,” where a meal is provided for the congregation so families can get away and have a Saturday night out in a safe environment at the church without breaking the bank. The nondenominational church provides families, after their Saturday night service, an area to “hang out” at a low expense. Using food bought at cost, Chris comes up with recipes and helps organize events, allowing families to enjoy $3 meals and sometimes fun activities like movies or a bounce house.
“The concept is if you get people out there and have this event where they’re not gonna break the bank, it gives them more bonding time with their family that typically we don’t see so much anymore cause we’re always so busy, run, run, run,” he says. The kitchen serves 75-150 meals each weekend.
Less than two months after Chris was diagnosed with MS, the disease had progressed from minor memory issues to numbness, stuttering, brain fog, and even seizures. “It was quite a shock. The way I would describe it to people is like you grow up your whole entire life knowing your body, and then you lose the manual on how to operate it.”
Though he was going through all of these personal trials, Chris didn’t want to give up the time he was giving to the church – the men’s ministry and the kitchen – or his full-time job as a guest experience manager at Walt Disney World. He had to learn how to deal with his MS symptoms while continuing his life, including finding rides for his 45-minute commute to work after losing his license for six months because of the unexpected seizures.
“I learned to follow my pain and understand my body and what I was going through, to use that as inspiration for people to battle their own mountains, because you just never know. Everybody’s got their own problems which are relevant and the important thing to know is that each person is an individual,” Chris says.
He adds that a lot of people are very open to listening to his story and oftentimes, it serves to help them in more ways than one because “they turn around and say ‘Well if he has pain, then I can have pain too,’” and they’re more willing to share what they are going through themselves.
The shared pain between people “completely changes the dialogue of conversations and allows people to be so much more free and allow the healing process for people to be so much bigger,” Chris says. He’s learned along the way some emotional constructs and challenges that he’d never faced before have become very real, and he’s become sympathetic to things that he had not before understood.
“You can empathize to some degree, but you can’t always wrap your head around it,” he adds.
Over the past year, Chris has used all he’s learned, his changed perspective, and how to take emotions that “seem like a storm,” and calm them down enough that he can live in society peacefully, while assisting others in doing the same.