GARNER — Chris Hendricks had his guitar in hand and his walking cane on the floor as he shared a message with special-needs students at East Garner Middle School.
He encouraged them to embrace their disabilities rather than hide from them, to even find humor in their situation.
"There is nothing to be ashamed of," said Hendricks, who has cerebral palsy. "There is nothing to be afraid of."
Hendricks, 26, of Durham performed at East Garner Middle earlier this month, and he returned last week to talk to students. He hopes to visit more local schools to share his passion for music - and to urge kids to stop bullying each other, accept one another's differences and be comfortable with who they are.
Hendricks knows all too well what it's like to be picked on. Growing up, his classmates bullied him because of his disability. Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that affects movement, and the disease has left his limbs deformed.
"When I was younger, I was kind of ashamed of myself for a while," Hendricks told students on Thursday. "I did everything I could to hide that part of me."
But Hendricks made a change when he headed to Elon University. After several surgeries, doctors had wanted him to be in a wheelchair when he left home for college. He insisted on wearing leg braces instead, making his way around campus the best he could.
At Elon, Hendricks found a love for exercise. He spent hours in the gym bulking up. But it wasn't just a physical change - Hendricks said he shifted the way he approached his disability. For starters, he talked about it.
"If I make some joke about how I have better parking than everybody else, then it's funny," Hendricks said.
He had planned to become a physical therapist, but a new dream of a music career emerged when he picked up a guitar during his junior year of college.
Over the years, Hendricks has performed in places such as New York and Nashville. And he formed the Chris Hendricks Band, which plays local gigs.
Now, Hendricks said, he wants to focus on performing at schools.
In Garner, the school's 1,300 students were captivated by the band, school principal Cathy Williams said. They saw a video that showed Hendricks putting on his leg braces.
"My kids were absolutely silent watching him do this," Williams said. "It was really a message about tolerance."
Williams said that message is critical for middle schools, where bullying is common.
And Hendricks brought hope to the special-needs children, said Maria Blanc, 31, whose son, Victor, a sixth-grader at East Garner Middle, has cerebral palsy.
Victor is confined to a wheelchair, but he will have a bright future, Blanc said. "He's going to college - he better," she said.
Hendricks said he wouldn't change his life even if he could - except for maybe one day to find out what it's like to run a marathon. Otherwise, he said, he's happy with who he's become.
"It's really been an absolute gift for me," Hendricks said.