'He is an amazing man'

'He is an amazing man' »Play Video
KIRKLAND, Wash. -- It will take thousands of dollars and several surgeries to reconstruct a local man's face.

James O'Neal compares himself to the Elephant Man. A genetic disease left his face horribly disfigured, but that could soon change.

O'Neal knows his deformity shocks people. He knows others with the same genetic disorder would rather hide than work, but for 7 years James has proudly worked the registers at the Kingsgate Safeway on 124th Avenue NE in Kirkland.

"I just tell people this is who I am, it's the way I am. If you don't like me, you don't like me," he said.

His customers don't like him -- they love him.

"He is an amazing man and we love him. He's the kind of person that makes your day," said customer Aubrey Richins.

"I really love James," said shopper Katie Knopf.

All of them say they were stunned at first when they saw his disfigured face.

"I have to admit I was a little taken back, but when I walked through his line I felt this spirit come over me, this man is out here, not hiding," said long-time customer Cindy Peay.

Every shopper said the same thing: O'Neal is an inspiration. If that wasn't enough, he's lightning-fast on the register.

Knopf has put her money where her mouth is.

"We want to change his life," she said.

She knows O'Neal's insurance likely won't cover all of the costs of difficult and extensive surgeries. So she's launched a Web site asking for donations for reconstructive surgery.

Knopf also got Kinkos to donate a thousand fliers and plans to distribute them to local schools and the registers at the Kingsgate Safeway.

Her generous heart tugged on Safeway's heartstrings. The grocer decided to kick in the first $10,000.

"James is our employee, he is one of us and we absolutely think the world of him," said Cherie Myers, Safeway's director of public and government affairs. "This is just a bonus, this our bonus to him. He never asked for it, he's never said 'woe is me.' He's proud to be who he is."

That's why customers flock to him. Knopf says she'll stand in line just to have him ring her up.

"James will always be the person he is inside. I'm hoping with this he'll have a new lease on life," said Knopf. She hopes to raise $50,000, but guesses the costs could add up to be much more.

"It makes me feel honored and proud," said O'Neal, who was stunned to learn his employer is not only kicking in $10,000, but is committed to helping him navigate through all the insurance paperwork.

O'Neal has lived with his disability since birth. He has Neurofibromatosis. He compares himself to the Elephant Man, John Merrick, but their conditions are very different. Merrick was diagnosed with Proteus Syndrome.

DNA evidence revealed Merrick may also have a type of Neurofibromatosis. O'Neal says his tumors stopped growing when he stopped growing. He hopes surgery will rid him of the deformity for good.

"I think it's amazing what they want to do for me," he said. And it's clear they're doing it because of what O'Neal has done for them.

In July, Safeway stores in four states will kick off a three-week Canister Campaign, collecting donations to help O'Neal.

KOMO will continue to follow O'Neal's progress with updated reports.

For More Information about neurofibromatosis

www.ctf.org

www.nfinc.org