Marcos Bretón

‘I don’t care about height’: This fearless Sacramento kid transcends the ‘m-word’

‘He is probably our most skilled person on the field’: Hai Okenfuss and his family

The Okenfuss family lives in Sacramento's Land Park neighborhood. Their sons, Hai and Jude, have distinguished themselves as talented athletes both in local leagues and at the World Dwarf Games.
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The Okenfuss family lives in Sacramento's Land Park neighborhood. Their sons, Hai and Jude, have distinguished themselves as talented athletes both in local leagues and at the World Dwarf Games.

There was a time, not that long ago, when a child like Hai Okenfuss routinely would have been called the “m-word.”

Do you know that word?

It starts with an “m” and rhymes with widget. It’s a term thought to have been coined in the 19th century to describe – or to mock – a person of small stature. It’s one steeped in degradation and belongs in the English language Hall of Shame along with other pejorative sayings meant to isolate people or force them to the fringes of society.

At 10, Hai already is transcending that word. People around him simply call him what he is: A fiercely competitive athlete, a joyful son, a loyal friend, an extrovert, a well-adjusted kid not weighed down by ignorance dumped on previous generations of people who, like him, were born with dwarfism.

“I don’t care about height; I don’t care about width,” Hai, a fifth-grader at Crocker Riverside Elementary School, said earlier this week. “I just care that I pass (opponents) and score.”

He’s confident for a reason. His sporting achievements, and those of his brother Jude, 7, recently were honored in the chambers of Sacramento City Hall and the California state Capitol. Both boys won multiple medals at the World Dwarf Games in Canada over the summer, an international competition for children and young people with dwarfism, which is defined by the Mayo Clinic as an adult height of 4 feet 10 inches or less as a result of a medical or genetic condition.

Hai and Jude are living childhoods far different than the ones their parents experienced. The boys, adopted from Vietnam and South Korea, respectively, have avenues to play sports and gain self-esteem that were not readily available to their mother and father, who, like them, were born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. Dan and Ericka are 48 and 44, respectively, and grew up in a time when the m-word routinely was hurled at them.

“That (word) takes you back to the vaudeville days,” said Dan Okenfuss, a senior staffer for a Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, D-Woodland Hills.

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Dan and Ericka Okenfuss with their sons Hai and Jude and their dog Scout outside their home in Land Park. Jose Luis Villegas

He said that during his formative years in the 1970s and ’80s, people of small stature were openly treated as curiosities or comic relief.

Dan grew up in Cincinnati, an avid baseball fan dedicated to the Reds who listened to games on a transistor radio from his bedroom. But listen was all he could do. “If I could turn back the clock, yeah, I wish I would have had chances to play in leagues where I felt comfortable,” he said.

Instead of turning back the clock, Dan and Ericka worked to create a community around their children where they could play with other kids and just be kids.

So when their sons posed for photos with Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen at City Hall, or when they were praised by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty at the state Capitol, those moments became markers of acceptance once denied to people of small stature. They also were important milestones for a family, and for a community of people seeking to bury the stereotypes of the past.

Many people don’t know the “m-word” is a hurtful one. It was only a few years ago that the Little People of America, the national advocacy group for people with dwarfism, began to actively campaign to “abolish” the term from popular culture.

“Whether the intention of the user of the word is used to bully and to demean, or just as a synonym for small, our collective experience shows us that language has the power to cause permanent damage to one’s self-esteem and identity,” the LPA has said. “The dwarfism community has voiced that they prefer to be referred to as dwarfs, little people, people of short stature or having dwarfism, or simply, and most preferably, by their given name.”

You don’t have to look far to find recent examples of what the group is up against. Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2009, for example, featured an episode in which contestants were tasked with creating a mock commercial for a detergent. Their concept: three diminutive actors dressed in blue costumes run around squirting a “celebrity” with soap in a slapstick fashion until he is clean. The title of the commercial contained the m-word. The video is still on YouTube.

An engaging kid with an endearing sideways glance, Hai is not burdened by this history. Not yet. Not ever, if his parents have anything to say about it.

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Hai Okenfuss, 10, considered by his coaches as the best ball handler on the soccer team, sprints down the field during practice at Cal Middle School. Jose Luis Villegas

He was adopted from Vietnam the same year the “Apprentice” episode aired. He had been abandoned by his biological family and was living in a Hanoi orphanage. Hai could barely hear from untreated ear infections. “Like a lot of orphanage kids, Hai hoarded his food,” Dan said. “We have this picture of him (entranced by Hanoi hotel buffet) with a fork in each hand.”

Two years later, his brother Jude was adopted from South Korea. Dan and Ericka encouraged the boys to pursue whatever interested them. Hai gravitated toward sports, as did Jude. At the World Dwarf Games, Hai won medals in badminton and basketball. Jude won for sports including hockey, soccer and basketball.

A few years older than his brother, Hai has become a fixture in Land Park youth leagues. He’s not a curiosity. “He’s just Hai,” said Walt Gray, Hai’s soccer coach and a local TV personality. “He’s everywhere on his bike and his scooter. He has got more friends than anyone in Land Park.”

In soccer, Hai is a goal scorer who plays in forward positions, always keeping his eyes trained on the ball and chance to put one past a goalkeeper. He’s not above playing advantages. “(Other players) don’t want to hurt me,” he said. “I try to juke them.” His coach said opponents soon learn to play him honestly or pay the consequences.

“He’s fearless,” Gray said. “He just doesn’t back down.”

There are signs that pop culture is changing its attitudes toward little people. In HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” for example, award-winning actor Peter Dinklage plays one of the most popular characters in the series. As Tyrion Lannister, his storylines revolve around his wit, courage and cunning, not solely his size.

Nevertheless, the specter of “otherness” persists, Dan said. “You still get people who honk their horns at you. Or you get someone taking a stealth photo. That can be challenging, but it really toughens you up.”

Dan Okenfuss points out members of the family to his son Hai at their home in Land Park. Jose Luis Villegas

Dan said he has lived his life picking moments when he pushes back on ignorance, or when he just lets it go. “You have to choose your battles,” he said. “There are times when I think, ‘Do I need to be an advocate now?’”

He works hard to be kind in all of his responses, he said, because he cares about how little people are perceived in a broader community. “I might be the only little person they meet, and I don’t want to give a bad impression.”

Dan and Ericka both were raised by average-size people, which is the norm. According to LPA, 80 percent of people born with dwarfism have average-sized parents. “My wife was born on a Tuesday and by Saturday, her dad was at an LPA meeting,” Dan said.

Growing up, Dan and Ericka also were focused on achievement. With youth sports closed off to him, Dan became an Eagle Scout at 15. He then gravitated into a successful career in politics. Ericka’s interest in science led her to become a genetics counselor for Kaiser Permanente. The walls at their home are covered with family photos of beaming people, both with dwarfism and of average height.

Both parents are active members of LPA, and they have laid the foundation for a life of self-esteem for Hai and Jude. “We celebrate who we are,” Dan said. “It’s not something to be embarrassed about. It’s something to be proud of.”

When you pay pride forward, the medals will come.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton