When Josh Pennington, an athlete living with quadriplegia, and his volunteers at the Lift Disability Breakaway assist campers in wheelchairs to climb tall trees, he knows firsthand how transformative the experience can be.
“We get people out of their chairs, and they rappel up a tree 80 feet, a hundred feet. Then they look down through the leaves and see their empty chairs and realize they are not stuck to their chairs. They transcend. The climb affects other aspects of their lives. ‘I can dress myself.’ ‘I can go to college.’ Whatever the challenge, they realize their lives are not defined by their disability,” he says.
This 39-year-old, now a husband and father of two boys, was 22 years old when his life changed on May 8, 1999. “I was going in to town (in Ohio), a 45-minute trip to the grocery on rural roads, when I saw friends’ cars parked at a bar. I drank too much. My friends tried to stop me. I made it halfway home when I went into a big curve, missed the turn and crashed.
“When I woke, I learned I had a C6-7 spinal cord injury. I was paralyzed from the chest down. I have limited use of my quadriceps and triceps; my hands are paralyzed,” Pennington says. “From the chest up to my wrists is OK except for my hands. From the chest down, I have no motor function.”
Following his accident, Pennington spent three months on the Wexner Medical Campus of Ohio State University at Dodd Hall, a nationally recognized inpatient rehabilitation facility. His mother traveled from her home in Birmingham, Ala., to be with him.
“At the end of rehab, you sit in the middle of a circle surrounded by the doctors and physical therapists who worked with you.” Pennington paused, then rubbed his chin with a bent hand. “They ask you to describe your life before your injury. Then the head doc said to me, ‘You’re not going to get that life back.’
“Sitting in that metaphoric circle, I said, ‘No. It will take time, but I will get my life back.’ No one responded.
“The level of independence I have now took me two years to achieve. Not to brag, but I went to college. I got my degree in recreational therapy from the University of Alabama in Birmingham. I was looking for my purpose. I feel God put me here to be a resource for others living with disabilities and for their families.”
Pennington saw how his disability affected his entire family. He thought of other families similarly challenged. “They may have lost a wage earner. Siblings can get pushed to the background or assume more responsibilities at a young age. The forgotten moms who work so hard — no one is exempt.” He knew one day he would work with families. First, he needed to get his life in order.
Pennington believes people with disabilities must advocate for themselves, find resources and get involved in the disability community. He followed his own advice. While in college, he participated in adaptive recreation programs at the Lakeshore gym, part of the University of Alabama hospital that specialized in inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation.
He would stay at Lakeshore for 10 years first as a student, later as an employee and as a member of the wheelchair rugby team. He met two people at Lakeshore who profoundly influenced his life.
“I met my wife, Heather, at the gym when she took me through orientation,” he says. He also met Kevin Orr, who coached the rugby team. “The expectations people had for me were raised just by being part of that team. I learned so much from my teammates in my first three-day trip – how to go on a plane, stay in a hotel, negotiate the cities. I am full of gratitude to Kevin Orr who influenced me on all levels — physical, emotional and psychological.”
Difficult as his physical recovery had been, Pennington’s psychological journey of loss hadn’t been easy. Meeting Heather Burk brought more growth.
“At first, she was my friend. I was getting through the anger and the bitterness in part because she and the team at Lakeshore accepted me,” he says.
“I had told myself I wasn’t going to date, I believed that part of my life was over. I was the man in the chair, but Heather and I became more than friends. When I met her parents, I was apprehensive, but there was never a moment’s hesitation. They accepted me, in my chair.”
“We were married September 4, 2004. We moved here for my job in June of 2010 when I took a job with Disabled Athletes Sports Association. Heather is from Kirkwood, so it all worked. I stayed with DASA for three years,” Pennington says.
When an opportunity to work with families as area director for Lift Disability Network, a faith-based organization that welcomes all families with disabilities, presented itself, Josh and Heather Pennington both took on the job.
“Lift recognizes the family as a whole needs rehab,” he says. “Disability doesn’t have to define the family. After the injury the entire focus is on the person with the injury — the child, the father or the mother — but the family as a whole needs help.”
Lift sponsors Boost, a series of monthly programs that provide socialization, a shared meal, fun activities and inspiration to families living with disability. “One of our families lives over an hour away, but the mom brings her six children, three of whom are disabled here. ‘My kids are normal here,’ she says. We have families in rural communities that travel three hours one-way to attend Boost.”
Each year, Lift chapters sponsor Breakaway Disability Family Retreats. The retreat experience is designed for recreation, relaxation and spiritual renewal for the entire family.
Breakaway Family Retreat in Missouri runs July 20-23. Registration deadline is July 7. For the Penningtons, this year’s Breakaway holds special significance. In May, they adopted two former foster sons, Dylan, 13, and Dalton, 10. The Penningtons will attend Breakaway as a family this year.
“Because of my disability, I learned to be patient and adapt,” Josh Pennington says. “I think I have more patience with my sons because of that. Keeping up with two boys — I can do it, but I get me my exercise.”
Pennington continues to enjoy sports. Although his rough rugby days are behind him, he still continues to compete. “Today, I hand-cycle, water ski, snow ski, rock climb and tree climb. I push three to five miles on hikes near our property. Just getting through my days is physically demanding.
“I’ve lived with my injury for 17 years now; nearly as long as I lived without disability. . . . The first two years I wanted so hard to prove I didn’t have a disability, I exhausted myself, but I got my life back.”
Pennington doesn’t think disabled people or families should settle for less. “Never say never. Don’t let the world say ‘no’ to you and your family and believe it. Find a resource that will say yes.”
Source: St.Louis Post-Dispatch