BACKBONES counts on the leadership of our Board of Directors to make sure everything is running smoothly. They give of their time, skill and effort to serve all of our friends, families and partners. Get to know them and give them a High-Five when you pass them on the street!


Visala James (Switzerland)

(President) Visala is a corporate executive with over 30 years experience driving new businesses in Fortune 500 companies in Packaged Goods, Toys, Healthcare and Agriculture industries. She is a global citizen having lived in Malaysia, UK and US. She currently resides in Switzerland with her husband and her mother. They have 2 daughters. Visalás husband, Rob had a near fatal accident end 2018. He broke his spine (T4-5) and is now in a wheelchair. She found herself in the unexpected role of providing support for her husband - navigating European healthcare systems, learning what the world of spinal cord injury is about and how to navigate the emotional and physical rollercoaster ride of rehabilitation. Together with Rob, Visala has now chosen to leverage her knowledge and experience to be of service to others affected by Spinal Cord Injuries.

Lori Hand Jankowski (Maryland)

(Secretary) Lori has over 30 years of experience in public relations, brand management, marketing, & writing. Her career began as a writer for Governor Kerrey of Nebraska and transitioned to a policy writer and lobbyist for the National Association of Realtors. In 1990 she opened her own marketing firm, Access Management, Inc. with offices in Washington, DC and New York. Her clients included The Gap, Inc., MCI, H20 Plus and Starbucks Coffee Company. She joined Starbucks Coffee Company in 1996 where she expanded the sponsorship and promotional program and helped create an in-store music and CD program. Most recently she has focused her efforts towards charitable & non-profit organizations in the Washington, DC and Baltimore areas, specifically in the areas of education, juvenile diabetes and supporting resources for those with SCI/D. Jankowski is a proud mother to four children and resides in suburban Baltimore, Maryland.

Peter Yi (Illinois)

Peter Yi is a global investment executive with over two decades of institutional asset management experience. Peter is currently Managing Partner and Chief Investment Officer at the private equity firm, Harmonic Equity Partners. Peter also spent 23 years as an Executive Vice President at Northern Trust Asset Management. Peter is frequently interviewed and quoted as a fixed income market subject matter expert on national television and print media such as Bloomberg, CNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times. Peter is a passionate champion for diversity and inclusion, leading with high integrity and empathy. As a wheelchair user, Peter is also a relentless advocate for the disability community. In his spare time, he works with not-for-profit organizations focusing on the integration of people with disabilities into a more collaborative and inclusive culture.

Eric Larson (Illinois)

Eric is executive director of Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra where he leads the organization and oversees the program’s programming, marketing, development, and operations. He is also principal of Moving Mountains Advisors, helping nonprofits effectively achieve their missions.  He has a history of strong marketing communications/public relations and business leadership experience as well as nonprofit management and board development success, where he has served in both volunteer and staff leadership roles. Previously, Eric was executive director and CEO of National Spinal Cord Injury Association (NSCIA) where he led the merger of NSCIA with United Spinal Association to form the nation’s largest membership organization focusing on the quality of life for people with paralysis.

Allan Samson (New York)

Allan personally recovered from an injury that required him to have three major spinal surgeries. He is currently the Head of Security for the Xerox Corporation. He was part of the team that helped formulate the Transportation Security Administration's first Diversity Strategic Plan, signed by TSA's Administrator in June 2011 to promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workplace. He attended Fordham University, the Jesuit University of New York, and was a four-year member of the varsity football team. He proceeded to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science & Economics. Additionally, he graduated from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) TSA Senior Leadership Development Program (SLDP), a comprehensive Succession Plan designed to meet the future leadership needs of the TSA. He attended and completed the Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, Executive Leadership Program. As a civilian, he attended and completed the DHS, U.S Coast Guard Flag Officers/Senior Executive Service (SES), Executive Change Leadership Program, and the Gettysburg Leadership Experience.

Pat Maher (Illinois)

As Director of Civic Engagement at SPR, I manage our non-profit relationships tied to our mission within the tech sector. I support the success of historically overlooked and discounted segments of the workforce - including professionals and aspiring candidates with disabilities, girls and young women, and younger candidates from challenged backgrounds or who lack social capital in the continually evolving technology industry. Our strategic focus is on supporting students through early in career (EIC) professionals upon whom we believe we can have the greatest impact. I have managed a disability throughout my career, and have a natural empathy for others who exhibit a passion for learning and establishing meaningful careers. I have served in leadership roles on many boards, task forces, committees and teams for nearly 40 years in support of enabling our citizens, family, friends, and colleagues from these communities to lead the rich and fulfilling lives they deserve.

Headshot of Sara Klass. White woman smiling at the camera. She has curly shoulder length hair and blue eyes

Sara Klaas (Illinois)

Sara has been with Shriners Hospitals for Children for over 30 years and currently serves as the Corporate Program Development Director for Shriners International Headquarters where she is the system-wide expert in rehabilitation, clinical program development, strategic growth and staff development. Most recently, Sara served as the Director of Business Development, Marketing & Communications at Shriners Hospital for Children - Chicago where she led the business development strategy as well as the teams in marketing, advertising, community outreach and the physician liaison service. During Sara’s tenure at the Chicago Hospital, she served in a variety of capacities including as the Assistant Director of Family Services, the Director of Care Coordination, and as the Director of the Spinal Cord Injury Service (SCI). Sara was the SCI team leader for over twenty years and the founder of many unique programs for adolescents with SCI. She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and social work from Mundelein College of Loyola University and her master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Jane Addams College of Social Work. Sara has taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago in both the graduate and undergraduate programs. She is a frequent guest lecturer, a dynamic speaker and well published in the field of pediatric SCI. Sara has served on the Illinois Governor’s Council for Brain and Spinal Cord Injury, the Medical and Scientific Advisory Board for United Spinal Association, the Board of Directors for the Spinal Cord Injury Association of Illinois, as the Chair of the inaugural Prevention Committee for the American Spinal Injury Association and on the section Board of the Academy of Spinal Cord Injury Professionals where she is a past vice-president. Sara was the recipient of that organization’s Clinical Performance Award, was honored as the Essie Morgan Distinguished Lecturer, and in 2012 named Social Worker of the Year for the State of Illinois.

Charlis Penson (Maryland)

The Board of Directors is responsible for working with the executive director to set strategic direction for, and to govern, the organization. Our board is also a “working board”, so members are expected to take an active role in one or more areas of organizational activity. While we’re a national organization, we meet and work primarily via telephone and internet communications.