Empowered & Back to LIVING!


During the first five years of my career as a physical therapist in inpatient rehabilitation, I began to realize that we, as a medical profession, prepare people for a way to survive following a spinal cord injury.  We teach people how to get out of bed, how to dress oneself, how to avoid life-threatening medical conditions.  The flaw in this design, is that we are so focused on survival, that we never quite get around to teaching someone how to get back to living.

  Life is a series of experiences.  The experiences that I treasure most involve being active, sharing these activities with the people I love, and leaving a lasting positive impact on others.  Teaching people how to get back to creating these experiences is what is missing from the most intense rehabilitation a person goes through following their injury.  It was then that I decided to find a way to focus on teaching people how to get back to truly living following a spinal cord injury.  That is how Empower Spinal Cord Injury was born.

My good friends Jessica Goodine and Elizabeth Lima-Remillard share this passion of mine, and we worked together to incorporate our grass-roots non-profit called Empower Spinal Cord Injury, Inc in the fall of 2011.  Five years and four two-week summer programs later, and Empower SCI has become one of my greatest life accomplishments.  What more can you ask for in life, than to be able to leave a positive lasting impact on another individual; to be able to change the trajectory of someone’s life for the better.  Empower does just that- it is a spring-board to propel the people it touches onto a better, richer life path.

So what is the magical recipe for which to do this?  Well, we spend the last 2 weeks of July each year on the campus of Stony Brook University creating our mixing pot called Empower SCI.  Here is what we do at the program, and my opinion of why it works:

  • Focus on independence throughout the full 24 hour/day spectrum: Nothing compares to the comforts of one’s home, but nothing fosters change more than being out of that comfortable environment. Empower SCI provides a “new” home environment which offers 24 hour assistance, and every staff member is trained and focused on promoting independence during every moment of the day.  This allows participants to not only work on independent daily living skills, but also provides an excellent opportunity to be more autonomous in daily living through independent direction of care.
  • Select concrete goals: One to two years following a spinal cord injury typically gives the individual time to cope with loss, stabilize medically, and discover what they would like to work on to become more independent.  Occupational and physical therapists work with each of the 12 participants to select 2-3 goals.  They focus on these goals during one-on-one sessions, in addition to during real-time activities of daily living.
  • Immersion in a positive learning environment: Every person on-staff at Empower SCI is a volunteer, and is there for no other reason than wanting to be there. The positive energy that this creates is contagious, and can be described in no other way than Empower Love- you truly have to experience it to understand how powerful this can be for everyone involved.  Empower SCI also provides an education series which touches upon hot topics ranging from Sex and Relationships, Parenting, Travel, Return to  Work, and Goal-setting for Life.  These topics are sometimes reviewed during an inpatient rehabilitation stay, however Empower returns to these topics once the participant is ready to truly absorb the information.
  • Connections with others who have gone through a similar life experience, and a chance to talk about it: The peer mentors at the program have shared struggles, and have overcame these same struggles.  Our on-staff Rehabilitation Counselor, Gaby Ficchi, allows participants to reflect on these struggles and focus on their future during one-on-one and group rehabilitation counselling sessions.
  • Exposure to experiences that can ignite new passions. Recreation opportunities may be limited to individuals following spinal cord injuries, due to both limited access and difficulty with transportation to events. Empower SCI brings the opportunities to the participant, which include kayaking, rugby, court sports, racing, yoga, cycling, and even surfing!  These activities are provided and help to ignite a passion in the participants that they can pursue following the program.

And lastly, people often ask what to expect when coming to Empower SCI.  My response to that is expect to have fun, expect to be challenged, expect improvement, and expect to leave the program in a more positive light than when you arrived (for more on what our participants are saying about the program: http://www.empowersci.org/clients.html).

Applications are now open for our 2016 summer program which takes place July 17-30, 2016 at Stony Brook University on Long Island.  Participants come from as far away as California and volunteers come from as far away as Alaska.  No distance is too far, as long as you’re willing to travel and open to an amazing experience (https://youtu.be/GHDs0e_4jUE).  Find more information on how to apply at www.empowersci.org/applications.

If you are at all interested in attending or volunteering at the program, please feel free to reach out to me at ccallahan@empowersci.org.

By Guest Blogger: Carrie Callahan

About the author: Carrie Callahan, PT, ATP is President and Co-Founder of Empower Spinal Cord Injury.  She resides in the Boston area, and currently specializes in seating, positioning, and wheeled mobility as Territory Sales Manager for a major complex rehab equipment manufacturer.


  1. Bill Callahan
    April 8, 2016

    Great article!
    To a very compationate and dedicated person.

  2. Casey
    April 11, 2016

    Awesome write-up Kush. Your passion is evident and contagious. All of you guys (participants, volunteers, founders) continue to amaze me. Keep up the great work. Empower Love…

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