BACKBONES Leaders Program equips individuals with spinal cord injury and disability (SCI/D) with a skill set that will position them to become leaders and contribute in building a strong community. Ten participants with SCI/D who are driven and demonstrate commitment were 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.
For more information contact Monica Quimby, Program Coordinator at email@example.com
This program is made possible by the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation.
2023 LEADERS PROGRAM PARTICIPANTS
Allaina Humphreys | Illinois
Allaina Humphreys is the Owner and Design Director of Free Wheelin' Design. She solves clients' problems with skills honed over the last 29 years since a spinal cord injury sustained while training for gymnastics nationals changed the way she could create art. She is also the Founder, Co-chair, and Community Outreach Director for Bolingbrook Pride, Vice Chair of Bolingbrook Arts Council, and on the Accessible Community Task Force of Naperville. She devotes herself to making the world a better place for those in marginalized communities. Her many initiatives, positive attitude, open heart, and endless zeal for bringing people together to improve lives led to her being named female citizen of the year in Bolingbrook for 2021. When not engaged in community work, Allaina is Mama-bear to three children, two dogs, three ferrets, a gecko, many fish, and just celebrated 20 years of marriage to her very best friend.
Angelo Perez | Illinois
Angelo Gino Perez is a 55 year old Hispanic male and is a lifelong resident of Chicago. Angelo has overcome a traumatic injury in 1991. Angelo went on to recieve his GED, AA in Arts with a certificate in drug and alcohol counseling, BA in Behavioral Sciences and a MA from Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2013. Angelo helps others as a way to give back as others have helped him many times in life. Angelo considers himself a servant leader and believes in a hollistic approach to healing and working with others. Angelo is self retired and he is active in disabled sport and community where he volunteers with Dare2Tri, Adaptive Adventures, Diveheart, Shirley Ryan Ability Lab and the Chicago Park District. This is where Angelo interacts with youth and families to help make their transition to a much happier and healthier life.
Brianna Paauwe | North Carolina
Brianna was diagnosed spinal cord Injury in 2011 after making the choice to drive her car after she had been drinking. Due to insurance issues, she was only allowed limited PT and was sent home with liminal knowledge on how to grow her Independence. She finally became connected to the disability community through attending the Wheel With Me Foundation empowerment events in 2021 and changed the course of her life forever. Since then, she graduated college, moved across the country, started working for Wheel With Me Foundation/ Wheel With Me Fitness, and had grown her own Independence leaps and bounds. In the last 6 months alone, she has given up my transfer board, starting cathing on the toilet, traveled alone, taken a road trip across the entire east coast, and overcame dozens of challenging moments. She can’t wait to learn and grow more with this program to better her community!
Cynthia Noonan | California
Cynthia lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has always loved to be of service to her community. As an AmeriCorps volunteer, she taught environmental education and built trails throughout New Hampshire. Her love of teaching and the environment led her to work with organizations in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. After moving to San Francisco, she found fulfillment as Associate Director of the ALS Association Bay Area Chapter. Cynthia’s life shifted in 2007, when she became a quadriplegic from a rare autoimmune disease called Transverse Myelitis. Cynthia started hand cycling with a local organization, BORP in 2009, joined the board in 2012, and is now employed at BORP coordinating special grant projects and managing the fitness program. In her free time, Cynthia enjoys reading, writing and being active in activities such as cycling, archery, kayaking, and fitness classes. She also loves to explore and travel with her husband and dog.
Dianne Vitkus | Massachusetts
In July 2020, Dianne Vitkus’ life changed in an instant as she fell 12 feet off a rooftop ladder and sustained a C6 spinal cord injury. Having worked as a surgical physician assistant she immediately knew the implications of her injury as she was rushed to the hospital. Facing the most difficult challenge in her 28 years, Dianne’s journey since then has included radical emotional honesty, steadfast commitment to physical therapy, and an outpouring of community support to lift and encourage her. Her resilience and determination to adopt a perspective of hope and gratitude makes her an incredible advocate for not only spinal cord injury but also mental health. She has chosen to drive deep into both fields, volunteering her time to be a SCI ambassador and returning to work as a psychiatric physician assistant.
Joe Stone | Connecticut
As an adaptive athlete Joe has been able to take on many highly influential leadership roles such as a peer mentor, motivational speaker, support group leader, captain of a national wheelchair rugby team and a basketball coach. He has received multiple awards for his participation in the many sports he represents. He is the first and only quadriplegic to enter and finish Gaylord Hospital’s 5k obstacle course mud run. Joe was unanimously nominated by his teammates in 2016 to be the captain of their national wheelchair rugby team the CT Jammers. Because of his belief in the power of positive thinking and his growth mindset he has spoken at numerous events as a guest motivational speaker. Joe graduated with honors at Gateway Community College in 2018. He is certified as a therapeutic recreational specialist.
Michelle Maslanka | New Hampshire
Michelle Maslanka lives in New Hampshire where she sustained a C5-6 spinal cord injury from a car accident in 2014. Michelle is passionate about health and fitness. She is involved with a local non-profit teaching Zoom upper-body exercise weekly. Michelle enjoys a variety of adaptive sports with her favorites being alpine skiing and kayaking. Michelle has recently started her own medical billing business where she helps others obtain medical reimbursement for activity-based therapies not traditionally covered by insurance. Michelle loves staying active and encouraging others in their journey to recovery and becoming their best selves. In addition, Michelle homeschools her 15-year old daughter and is proud to be raising a caring and compassionate person who treats people of all abilities with kindness and understanding.
Nancy Hanson | New York
Nancy possesses skills as a business owner, consultant and mother of five. She negotiated pro sports licensing contracts, cold called professionals and consulted with auto owners to zoo keepers. Raising a handful of children, running a business- juggling, time management, and priorities were mastered. Nancy is a certified canoe /kayak official and was announcer at the 1984 Summer Olympics. As president and District Assistant Governor in Rotary, she made a difference in many lives. With Nancy’s diverse knowledge she chose an untraditional recovery path as an incomplete quadriplegic. In a proactive role she became proficient with insurance, workers comp policy and procedures. Nancy wants to work as a patient advocate so others may benefit when treatments are refused. Nancy’s unique outlook is refreshing to those who seek untenable goals or Sisyphean feats. Coaching athletes on a Jr. World team prove her methods successful. Her most valuable lessons are learned from her children.
Rene Morataya | New York
Rene Morataya Garcia is a 21-year-old C6 quadriplegic that was injured on October 30th, 2020 after a traumatic car accident that changed their life. Before his injury, Rene lived an extremely active lifestyle that involved a lot of running, lifting weights, and generally just moving about everywhere. One of the biggest accomplishments that he achieved was becoming a U.S. Marine after completing boot camp during the covid pandemic period. One of his biggest struggles since becoming a wheelchair user was finding his active lifestyle even with the issues that come with being a quadriplegic, for example, hand dexterity. Rene has done a lot of research to continue his lifestyle of being an active person and adapting every exercise he used to do to accommodate his physical ability. It took many months but Rene has hit a point where he is satisfied with his active lifestyle and will continue to get more active in the days to come with his passion for it only growing.
Yesenia Torres | New York
Yesenia Torres, has a Spinal Cord Injury at level C4-5 incomplete. Works at the taxi and limousine commission as the Accessibility outreach Coordinator. Activist and advocate for the disability community, transportation access and accessibility in the city. Community Leader, Peer Mentor, Lecturer, Model, Holistic Life coach and Author of the Book ‘’Destined to be Reborn’’. She has developed studies: Associates degree in Media Studies, LaGuardia Community College, Bachelor degree in Film Production with a minor in TV and Radio Brooklyn College, Certified as ADA Coordinator, Certified as Holistic life Coach and Certified as Human Rights Consultant. Yesenia has received Awards from: Women Make Movies Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award for Achievement in Documentary, “Broken College’’, Brooklyn college Film Department award for best Director in Documentary, ‘’Broken College’’, The Colombian consul handed a certification of appreciation for Community Leadership, 2022 Strong Wheeled Together Award, and Excellency Award from US Institute Diplomacy and Human Rights.