EmpowerSCI was hosted at Stony Brook University in July

EmpowerSCI, directed by Liz Lima, Jessica Goodine and Carrie Callahan, had 8 wheelchair users with recent spinal cord injuries, three women and five men. The program also briefly hosted several guests with spinal cord injuries, from the local Long Island community, who came for short periods to teach or learn. Three full-time peer mentors who have lived with SCI for many years lead discussions on areas of independent living such as activities of daily living (dressing, toileting, cooking, putting on makeup, taking pills), sexuality and relationships, hiring personal assistants, and attending school. Stony Brook faculty members Sue Sisto and Brooke Ellison gave lectures on state of the art in spinal cord injury locomotor training and stem-cell research. Thanks to our local and regional contacts, participants were able to learn about wheelchair sports and to try different sports chairs for basketball, rugby, racing, and hiking (off-roading). They also were able to try handcycling, kayaking, swimming, yoga, adaptive aquatics, and dancing at a local night club. Leaving fear and self-doubt behind, the participants approached the short week with dedication and focus. As a result, they were thrilled, absolutely exultant, at each new accomplishment that promised to increase their independence and quality of life. Participants felt their lives were forever changed by this program.

The EmpowerSCI staff were completely composed of volunteers this year, most of them Stony Brook students and alumni from our physical therapy, occupational therapy, and health sciences programs. Students showed impressive dedication, working late night and early morning shifts required to support folks with SCI -- many taking this on in addition to hefty summer course schedules. The students and alumni also felt that their lives and their approach to their future professions were forever changed by this experience. One student said her perception of what therapists accomplish during their 30 minute therapy sessions was completely transformed by the opportunity to spend days and nights with people adjusting to the complex realities of SCI. She could see how seemingly small changes, like mastering a new way to transfer from wheel chair to shower, could be a source of great satisfaction and real-life change, when people gained skills that freed them from reliance on others for such intimate tasks.

Stony Brook faculty members, Pamela Block, Mary Squillace, Sue Sisto, Anita Santasier, and Kathy Koshansky were on hand to support the events in action and behind the scenes to ensure the program went smoothly. This experience has stimulated new interests and research questions that we will be developing over the coming year, to implement in 2013, when EmpowerSCI proposes to return to Stony Brook for a full 4-week session.