BACKBONES Leaders Program equips individuals with SCI/D with a skill set that will position them to contribute in building a strong community by becoming self-aware advocates, civically engaged, and role models for others. Participants with SCI/D who are driven to be leaders in the community and demonstrate commitment are selected from all over the country for a year-long development program. The cohort meets monthly via video conferencing to check-in, learn from guest speakers, and participate in educational in-services on topics such as Public Speaking, Advocacy, Event Planning, Social Media, Cross-Disability, Self-Care and more.

2021 LEADERS PROGRAM PARTICIPANTS

Monica Quimby | Leaders Program Coordinator

Monica was a motivated sophomore in college as a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major when a tragic skiing accident left her paralyzed with a spinal cord injury after attempting her 30th back-flip. After the accident, she stayed focused on her goals through philanthropic ventures after feeling like an outlier to bring awareness to the public about people with disabilities through being Ms. Wheelchair Maine 2011, being an active board member for Alpha One (Maine’s only independent living center), an ambassador for the 2013 Boston Abilities Expo, a recreational kayaking and cycling coach with Maine Adaptive’s summer program, a biological sciences professor and received a Forty Under 40 award for her efforts. Her athletic career started back up with Paracanoe, which she won silver at the 2014 Lake Placid International and started to cross-train with sled hockey in December 2013. She is currently on the USA Women’s Sled Hockey Team, a co-captain on the Tampa Bay Lightning Sled Hockey team and the coordinator of the BACKBONES Leadership Program. She also enjoys watercolor painting, gardening, spending time with family and friends, and is an active member of her local church.

Michael Maruzzi | Program Participant 

I am a C5 quadriplegic. I was injured in 1987 during a high school hockey game. I graduated from Boston University and worked for more than 20 years teaching high school mathematics. I soon realized that my greatest teaching tool was my wheelchair. My chair gave me a unique perspective which helped to connect with kids. I assisted in developing a conflict resolution program at the high school. Students were trained to proactively resolve conflicts amongst their peers. The efforts of these students significantly reduced any incidents of violence at the school. I spent many years coaching softball and baseball. I am very proud of my Greatest coaching accomplishment, Winning the 11 year old girls softball championship in my hometown. Currently, I live in Fort Myers Florida with my beautiful wife Arlene. We have been married for 6 years. Since moving to Florida, I helped to design an after school program for underprivileged Elementary School students. I am very interested in trying to create affordable accessories for wheelchairs. Utilizing technology to create products that will give every person in a wheelchair as much Independence as possible.

Louis Paniccioli | Program Participant

Louis is a 26-year-old native New Yorker who is a disability rights activist and advocate. He has had cerebral palsy, among other disabilities, his whole life due to premature birth. However, he does not allow his disabilities to define his capabilities and continually succeeds in whatever he puts his mind to, embracing my disabilities as a unique part of my overall identity. He considers politics an essential part of his life as he firmly believes that politics and law are real ways to guarantee equality for all. His progressive viewpoints drive me to be engaged and keeping up with current events in the world as he loves helping others and discussing current events with people. He has had numerous experiences that have only broadened my horizons. Among these experiences are interning with the American Association Of People with Disabilities, earning a certificate in Disability Advocacy, and most recently becoming a community organizer with Georgia (GA) ADAPT, continuously learning nonviolence and civil disobedience under the tutelage of Zan Thorton and Rev. Butch Brosman. Among his many dreams are to become a lawyer and possibly venture into politics so that he may continue to fight for progress.

Chris Block | Program Participant

Chris has a B.S. in mechanical engineering and a master’s in biological and systems engineering from Virginia Tech. It was his lifelong passion for automobiles, and subsequently alternative fuels, that led Chris to pursue mechanical engineering and resulted in the award of a scholarship for his master’s degree. Post graduation, Chris held multiple jobs at various automotive manufacturers. His pursuit of renewable fuels led him to collect used cooking oil and brew biodiesel to power his vehicles, which he had retrofitted himself. Chris shattered his fifth vertebrae in an unfortunate bicycling accident in 2016, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down and with limited use of his triceps or fingers. Despite this accident, Chris continues to thrive. His favorite activities include botany, cooking, driving, equestrian/hippo therapy, functional electronic stimulation rowing, scuba diving, arm powered tricycling, and spending time with his friends and family.

Steven M. Lewis | Program Participant

Steven is retired from work in software. He had a PhD in biophysics and taught bioengineering at USC for 13 years. His specialties were simulation, respiratory control and gas exchange. He has since worked for a number of companies in the software and biomedical fields as well as taught at Bellevue community college.  Steve was injured in an airplane crash which left him a paraplegic. He has learned to make the best of his condition helping to design equipment and traveling to Mexico,Europe and Asia. Steve has served as President of the board of Alliance of People with Disabilities the local Center for Independent Living. He also served as Co-Chair of the Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities. Steve is married and has two grown daughters and one cat. His experience on the board has been positive and fulfilling giving him a chance to meet work with and assist a number of people with different abilities and disabilities.

Chris Mitchell | Program Participant

Chris survived an ischemic stroke to his spinal cord while undergoing an ascending to descending aortic bypass at the age of 36 in 2002. While the injury robbed him of his ability to walk, it inspired him to show himself and the world that there is more to a disabled person than their disability and its limitations. Chris taught himself how to use a rollator nearly seven years after his insurance stopped covering his outpatient therapy. Chris has shared his story of his fight to get his life back after his injury in his self-published memoir, “it Doesn’t Define Me.”. Chris’ other disabilities include a visual impairment and ADHD. For more than a decade Chris has been an inspirational and motivational author, writer, blogger, speaker, and podcaster who empowers other disabled people to succeed in their professional and personal lives. Chris has been happily married to his dream girl Kimberly for 17 years and counting. They live in southwest Missouri with their orange cat Junior. Chris is active in Toastmasters, several writer guilds and has earned awards for his volunteer work in his community. Chris enjoys anything from the 80’s: Music, Movies, TV shows and totally awesome collectable items!

Christopher Young | Program Participant

I’m Christopher Young a paraplegic of 20 years . My injury comes from senseless street violence . I was shot 6xs close range that left me a T-9 injury. During the time of my recovery. I was faced with all types of obstacles that lead me to a place of humility. I struggled to get my mind wrapped around the idea not being able to physically walk, jump and run. Placed in a world where you are defined by status and appearance . I felt obligated to be brave enough to challenge myself to make something out of self. The idea of knowing that the things you used to do has changed ,and now I have to be bold and courageous. I followed the word of the lord asking for guidance that he may show me a new walk . The lord came to me and said I will heal you if you learn to follow me. Filled with uncertain I transformed my mind to learn how to follow. In the hardships of struggling with the disabling of not knowing what was next. To trust in and believe in the leader that you follow builds character within. The transformation of following to becoming a good leader grew my mind to realize that I couldn’t or wouldn’t get to be an amazing person to others without knowing how to speak to others . How to encourage others even when it’s not in the interest of me. Giving proper instructions to uplift each person that’s in a similar situation. I’ve proven myself to be an inspiration an example of leadership. I’ve accomplished the act of being a great leader. Working on my job interacting with people with all backgrounds helps teach you how to listen to and respect the mind set of all people. The leader in me allows me to have compassion for others empathy for there feelings. To believe in and to encourage people defines a true leader in me.

Shannon Cobb | Program Participant

My name is Shannon, I am 26. From Chicago. Injured in 2018, with a rare condition- ultimately causing a spinal cord injury T-8-T12 & a TBI. I enrolled as a student with the intent on going into Social Work but am finding interest in new areas, like public speaking and the development of Non For-Profits. I was always athletic and enjoy doing yoga and tai chi. I previously played at an elite level in basketball, soccer and lacrosse. I love boxing and self-defense. I am finally getting back involved with sports- and am very excited to start playing and training with a team again. I enjoy going to skate parks in my chair and snowboard in winter. Music is my therapy. I have been on a strict prescription of 90’s rap, grunge, metal, and reggae. I always loved bands like Nirvana, Black Sabbath, Beastie Boys, Korn and many more. I enjoy making my own music as well- including playing instruments and making beats with my switchboard. I always enjoyed poetry, writing, and freestyling. I enjoy calligraphy and always have and will- enjoy my free spirit and ability to converse with all different types of people. I am looking into journalism, public speaking, writing a book, and am excited and interested to eventually start my own organization. I want to leave a lasting impact on the world, especially to the communities that have helped me get where I am. Including people experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, prison reform, mental illness and drug addiction. I have learned to find humor in the darkness and am very excited to be a part of BACKBONES and conversing with other peers, who happened to use wheelchairs like I do. As Buddha put it best. “You only have what you cling too”.

Tameka Citchen-Spruce | Program Participant

My name is Tameka Citchen-Spruce.  I have a T2 incomplete spinal cord injury due to a car accident at 6 months old. I have a strong passion for disability advocacy and media. It started at 21 years old, as Ms. Wheelchair MI 2006. Since then, I’ve been advocating for access to affordable and accessible housing, fighting against voting oppression towards people with disabilities, racial and gender injustices, and health equity.  I have a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Oakland University. With my journalism knowledge, and activism I learned the importance of telling a person’s story. I have written, produced, and co-directed a short film, Justifiable Homicide, which has been nominated and won an award.  And I produced a documentary, My Girl Story which has been selected for film festivals.  The other joys of my life are being married and raising my two children.

Kris McElroy | Program Participant

Kris is a writer, artist, and advocate. He lives in Maryland with his wife and daughter. Kris lives with multiple disabilities, including complex hereditary spastic paraplegia/spinocerebellar ataxia. Both progressive neurological disorders can impact people in many different ways. The exact type Kris lives with has yet to be found through genetic testing. Kris transitioned to using mobility aids, including a walker and manual wheelchair in 2017. He loves participating in adaptive sports like sailing, hiking, basketball, and bocce. His favorite sport is wheelchair tennis and he hopes to compete in a tournament. He also loves cooking, going on adventures, making cards for the Chronic Warrior Collective, and spending time with family. Previously Kris has been a cast member of the Telling This Truth Theatrical Production through HopeWorks and has worked in the nonprofit industry serving the mental health and disability community in various roles as a human services professional. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Maryland and his Master’s degree in Multidisciplinary Human Services from Capella University.