At first, it may seem hard to understand how a Scripps Ranch father and husband can call his ALS diagnosis a blessing, but the story of Michael Howell’s transformation and what he has done since his diagnosis is a very inspiring one.
This father of three suspected something was wrong with his health several years ago.
"Lack of leg strength made it pretty obvious something serious was going on," Howell said.
Eventually, doctors confirmed the diagnosis Howell suspected and feared: he has ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.
It’s a cruel disease that progressively paralyzes the body without affecting the mind.
The average survival time after diagnosis is less than six years.
"If it starts like it did for me, in my left foot and moves up you can last three to five years or maybe longer if you're lucky," Howell said.
Howell is keenly aware of the devastating effects of the disease but remarkably, he’s not afraid.
In fact, he credits his diagnosis with changing his perspective on life for the better.
"I spent my whole life, probably from when I was 10 or 12 all the way to 51 when I was diagnosed, walking away from God. And this was like Him [God] putting a wall in front of me saying, 'You can continue the way you are going or you can turn around,' Howell said. "I decided to turn around."
Howell said as his faith was strengthened, his eyes were opened.
"I spent my entire life building up things for me and my family and trying to create opportunities for them and ignoring looking around and looking through and just not paying attention to what the other need was," he said.
Howell finally realized that “other need” is the many other people who are in desperate need of help.
He said his newfound faith increased his desire to start serving others.
It prompted him to make a dramatic change. Howell connected with the San Diego based organization Build a Miracle.
The organization’s co-founder, Julianne North recalled, “From the first time Michael Howell called me he said, ‘I want to do something.’”
Through Build a Miracle, the Howell family started a children's feeding program in El Florido, a neighborhood in Tijuana, Mexico.
Build a Miracle is transforming lives in El Florido by helping families living in extreme poverty there.
Soon after the feeding program started, North sent Howell a picture of the kids in the program eating.
Howell said one little boy, Alexis, stood out to him because of what he was doing.
“It was a group of 14 kids sitting around a table eating and he [Alexis] was the only one saying grace and that really touched me," Howell said.
Julianne North said Michael Howell immediately emailed her asking for more information on the praying child, “…and I said, ‘He's on a waiting list for a home.’ And Mike’s next email said, ‘Okay, I want to build him a home.’"
From pouring the foundation to painting the walls, Howell and his family worked with Build a Miracle to turn Alexis' family's dilapidated shack into a three-bedroom, fully-furnished home with plumbing, appliances, and beds.
The Howell's also paid the $16,000 cost to make it happen.
Howell said it’s a startlingly small cost for such a life-changing investment.
"An awesome, incredible family vacation for five can basically completely build and furnish a house down there and change a whole family's life," Howell said.
"I think every day we have a choice to make a difference, and Mike made that choice, and to me, it's an inspiration,” said Julianne North. “It's things like that keep us going and keep us wanting to keep doing it,” she said.
Michael Howell’s pastor and friend, Jack Hawkins, of Canyon Springs Church in Scripps Ranch, said he loves spending time with Howell.
"We have the best time together just because of his perspective and what he's gone through," he said.
Hawkins said Howell has an incredible, selfless outlook.
"What Michael has decided to do is to do for one what you wish you could do for everyone," he said.
It’s been nearly three years since Howell was diagnosed with ALS. Howell said he is feeling the effects of the disease’s progression and it has limited his mobility.
"It's starting to get in my arms and hands more and more," Howell said. “I'm either in a wheelchair or this scooter. I can walk very short distances with a walker," he said.
His mission to help others didn’t stop with the completion of Alexis’ family’s home.
Howell said he's committed to paying for Alexis' secondary school and college to help break the cycle of poverty.
The Howells are also accepting donations of wheelchairs, walkers and other news and used medical equipment to help the elderly and disabled in Mexico.
Michael Howell said he wants to build a home for another family in need.
He hopes his story will inspire others to take action: "Instead of being so overwhelmed or so paralyzed with the need being so great just take it one child at a time or one family at a time and try to make a difference in their lives.”
Build a Miracle has helped transform the lives of nearly 300 hundred families by moving them of shacks and huts most of us wouldn't dream of living in and into homes with basic amenities often taken for granted. Below is just one before and after example.