On Thursday, it was Christmas come early for Jeff Scott as he took hold of the keys to a gleaming Dodge Grand Caravan. The vehicle was even draped in a big red bow.
The 28-year-old Victoria man is getting back on the road, a new inflection point on a journey from a devastating trauma to a hectic life of school, running a charitable foundation and playing wheelchair rugby.
“It’s surreal that it’s mine,” Scott said. “The reliability and freedom of this van is unbelievable. It’s unlike anything I have imagined.”
Scott was one of three winners of a free 2013 Dodge van outfitted with $40,000 in wheelchair accessibility equipment and adaptive driving technology. An essay contest organized by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) saw some 1,225 entries whittled down to three through a process of online voting and a panel of judges. The other two winners are in the U.S.
Friends and family from across B.C. – parents Connie and Steve Scott from Burns Lake and sister Lindsay Giricke from Bella Coola – and industry officials from the U.S. crowded into the Shoppers Home Health Care store on Hillside Avenue Thursday to present Scott the van.
“When you’re in a wheelchair you can’t run to the store for groceries. It makes everything more difficult from catching a bus to catching a cab. You rely on other people to help you. It’s frustrating at times,” Scott told the crowd. “The van represents … that feeling of freedom, to go where you want when you want. Now I can offer (rides) to friends.”
Shoppers Home Health Care co-ordinated a continent-wide effort to rebuild the van for Scott’s mobility limitations as a quadriplegic with partial arm and hand movement. Chrysler donated the van, BraunAbility installed the wheelchair ramp, hydraulic kneeling system and a driver’s chair that rotates and moves up and down.
Shoppers installed the adaptive driving, which allows Scott to control the brake and acceleration with a hand control. The entire steering column was rebuilt in Toronto and New Jersey to reduce pressure needed to turn the steering wheel.
“It’s pretty awesome. Everything is donated,” said Dave Hubbard, CEO of NMEDA and who travelled from Florida for the event. “(The van) is extremely well outfitted. The manufacturers understand the need and the value.”
Lloyd Updike, with BraunAbility, came in from Nebraska. “If it improves your life, we win,” he told Scott.
Scott, a wildfire firefighter and outdoor adventurer, damaged two vertebrae on April 11, 2010, in a snowboarding accident in Revelstoke. It was the last day of the ski season. “I shorted a gap in a jump, landed flat and woke up a quadriplegic,” he said.
He spent nine weeks without the ability to breathe, talk or eat on his own, and more than a year in rehabilitation in Vancouver. His mother Connie said her son never felt sorry for himself or surrendered to depression.
“How you see him today he’s been every single day since the accident,” she said. “We never imagined he’d live independently let alone drive independently. It’s hard to put into words how inspiring he is for us.”
“I don’t know how, but the biggest thing was the immediate acceptance of the injury and situation, and moving forward from there,” Scott said. “Family and friend support definitely helped. I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Scott moved to Victoria two years ago to play wheelchair rugby, mainly at Pearkes arena, and to study for a degree in emergency management. Not content with that, he is also the director of the Live It! Love It! Foundation, which he founded with former girlfriend Izzy Lynch.
Through Live It! Love It!, Scott funds outdoor adventure camps in Whistler and at Silver Star Resort for people with physical disabilities. His life of adventure has changed, but it hasn’t ended – he’s an avid sit-skiier, he river fishes for steelhead and even went body surfing in Hawaii.
“There are luxuries I’m afforded due to family and friends. There’s adventures I get to go on and not everyone can do that, he said. “If I can share that love, I’m a happy man.”
Scott regained his driver’s licence two months ago. Joe Cyr, with the automotive department for Shoppers Home Health Care, said using adaptive hand controls rather than floor pedals is easier than people might think, although the process to regain a driver’s licence to outfit a vehicle can be daunting.
“Five or six manufacturers are involved with gear that has to work together in the vehicle,” Cyr said. “There’s a lot of headaches to push through, but there’s a good result in the end.”
For more on Live It! Love It! Foundation, see liveitloveit.org.