By Josh Saunders
An amputee teen who survived a suicide bomb is now defying the odds to model and become a Paralympic hopeful.
Haven Shepherd was a baby when she lost both legs-below-the-knee from her parents committing suicide by detonating an explosive because their affair would never be legitimised.
The little girl, born as Phuong Twi Do, in Vietnam, was going to be put into a shelter by her biological grandparents who were too poor pay for her medical bills and take care of her.
At 20-months-old, Haven was adopted by the Shepherd family who flew 8,500 miles from Carthage in Missouri, USA, to bring the little girl home.
Since then, she’s learned to use her prosthetic legs and became an apt sports player, before starting swimming lessons four-years-ago and progressing to specialised training academies.
It’s hoped that Haven, now 14, will represent the USA at the Paralympic Games in addition to modelling.
She has joined Models of Diversity, during which she hopes to show others they should embrace their unique differences and live life to the fullest just like her.
Haven said: “I grew up hearing how I lost my leg and felt like it was a normal thing that had happened to others, it was only as the years went on that I realised I’m probably the only one with this story.
“I tell people the truth, that my parents had an affair and had me, but in Vietnam women cannot divorce, so when they committed suicide and all the damage was done to my legs.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow but I can’t avoid it and have to tell the truth about what happened.
“One of my earliest memories is my sisters telling me that while I am different from them, my differences are what make me who I am and special from everyone else.
“My family have always been very supportive and taught me not to be held back because I have to use prosthetics.
“I remember once watching girls playing basketball thinking I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have legs, then one of my sisters said I had to try.
“She told me that I wasn’t going to sit on the bench feeling sorry for myself, at the time I thought she was being mean but it really helped and is a mentality has stuck with me.
“Since then I’ve participated in track events, other sports and when I tell people I swim at such a high level they are blown away.
“The thing I love the most about swimming is getting to take off my legs and feel comfortable in the water, I feel free without my prosthetics, I’m in my own world in the water.
“I’ve also started modeling after realising a bunch of people weren’t happy with who they are, I want them to show them it’s ok to be different.
“I want them to see the unique things about themselves in a positive way and that diversity is a good thing, if I feel comfortable they can too.”
Parents Shelly and Rob, 56 and 57, found Haven through the Touch A Life Foundation for homeless children in 2005 and flew out to retrieve her from Vietnam.
Shelly, a full-time mum of seven, said: “We heard about what happened to Haven and were told her grandparents were too poor to take care of her.
“Despite my husband’s reservations about adopting, he fell in love with Haven instantly, she wouldn’t ride in the car unless he was there.
“Haven wouldn’t even nap unless he was holding her, over time she made us realise that she chose us and that not having legs wasn’t a big deal.”
Shelly says she dreaded telling her daughter the truth about what happened to her parents but tried to make it part of her life.
She added: “I always worried about telling her the truth about why she lost her legs, so from the time she was on my hip I told her, I didn’t whisper like it was a secret part of her life.
“I told her that she was a healthy but impoverished baby, the product of a love affair.
“Feeling hopeless in their situation, her parents decided to commit a family suicide by strapping bombs to themselves and holding their baby girl.
“The explosion killed them both and caused Haven to lose both of her legs below the knee but miraculously she survived
“By the time she was five after retelling her story she told me, ‘Well that was stupid’ and another question, after that she was good.”
Until the age of five, Haven refused to wear her prosthetic legs, ever since that moment, she’s been defying the odds and even redefined her parents’ perception of her limitations.
Shelly said: “You have all these stereotypes about a disabled child, we thought Haven would need a quieter life but she couldn’t be any more opposite.
“We thought we would have to teach her piano rather than sports but her athletic dreams and goals surpass all our other children.
“She even made the Paralympics Emerging Swim team at the age of 12 and hopefully will participate at the 2020 or 2024 Paralympics.”
Haven also visits amputees in the hospital to help them accept their disabilities, talking to people from the nine-years-old to pension age, and love to help empower them.
Haven said: “My prosthetic legs are very noticeable, it’s the first thing you see because they are black and shiny, but it makes me an individual.
“It’s part of me, I can’t wake up and be like I want legs, I have to live with what I have.
“I go to hospitals to meet other amputees, when I show them I can still walk and live a full exciting life, after talking to them it’s like their world has changed.
“It’s a feeling I can’t describe, you’re definitely in the moment, you see their moods change and them getting hope by me showing them what their lives can be like.”
Since started swimming at the age of ten, Haven was scouted and is training to compete as part of the USA Paralympic team ready for the 2020 games in Tokyo, Japan.
The Shepherd family say they are immensely proud of their daughter’s achievements and since working with Models of Diversity she hopes to inspire others.
Haven said: “If people with disabilities and able-bodied see me having fun without my legs and modeling, I’m hoping it will make them happy and realise smaller things don’t matter.
“Lots of people have told me that I needed to feel comfortable and embrace who I am, I’ve done that now and want to pass it onto others.”
Models of Diversity (MoD) is the campaign for better representation of all kinds of people in the fashion, beauty and media industry.
They represent people of all ages, races, body sizes, disabilities, and non-traditional gender identification.
Angel Sinclair, founder of MoD, said: “Haven’s pursuit of her ambitions despite adversity is an example to us all never to give up, as an athlete or a model.
“She’s the embodiment of the idea that you don’t have to look like the mainstream models in order to BE a great a model.
“She is just so inspiring, anyone who learns about her story should be left in no doubt that we all lose out when we arbitrarily limit our ideas of who should be a particular role, whether athlete, model or anything else.”
For more information visit: modelsofdiversity.org