Living With Paralysis: A Lifelong Support Non-Profit Organization Providing Resources, Hope And Security To All Who Have Suffered This Injury

AIH 34 | Spinal Cord Injury

 

The Triumph Foundation was built to help people who are suffering from spinal cord injury. Its founder, Andrew Skinner, endured the same injury and was paralyzed in 2004. Andrew shares the hardships he experienced and how he was able to overcome his adversity with the help of his family and the people around him. The organization was built to rebuild people’s lives by reintegrating them back to the community after living a sedentary life, helping them triumph over tragedy as they find their a purpose and joy.

Listen to the podcast here:

Living With Paralysis: A Lifelong Support Non-Profit Organization Providing Resources, Hope And Security To All Who Have Suffered This Injury

What I want to discuss with you which you’re so good at teaching me is the power of intention and what that actually means to people. I don’t think they get that. People can set goals and people get excited about their progress in life. It’s not about how much money you’re making art or how many accolades you may have or what cars you have or houses. It’s all about the progression of movement. You’ve been so good on showing me on how that works and you created an outline on your tips. Would you share us with that first?

I’ll speak about intention first and then we can go into more of what we’ve created. To me, intention really is about having a vision for the way you want your life to go and sticking to that and not letting the circumstances or events of your life deter you from that. In my experience and this is the way I work. It’s nice to have a distant and broad intention. I want to be living in a house on the beach with my own farm at some point in my life and I’m open to whatever it takes to get there. I think when you allow yourself to be open to whatever it takes to get there, and you don’t resist the way your life tried to flood that because the intention is very powerful.

I love that and what I see happening is that there’s change that’s going to happen in everyone’s life. There’s going to be a change with the economy. There’s going to be a change with relationships. There’s all these things that are going to be moving and you’ve got to find your own flow. When you visualize and believe in what you’re doing, and everybody always comes and says, “How’d you walk again or what did you want to do?” because I didn’t have a choice. I had to set an intention. I’m saying, “I don’t want to sit around the rest of my life and watch my girls running around without me being able to stand and walk.” That’s something that people have to make a choice. It’s like the story I shared earlier about how do you take the island? You burn your ships. You burn all the ships you came in on, and your soldiers are forced to take that island and either win or lose. There’s no other opportunity. What I love about what you’re doing is you’re showing people a playbook of intention. If they follow the playbook, they’re going to progress, they’re going to move and movement helps heal.

The thought that came to my head was the intention is having an anchor in your life. Anytime something happens to you, you go, “How is this getting me closer to my intention? What is this teaching me that can help me embody where I’m trying to get to?” It’s all a matter of just shifting your perspective out of “Why is this happening to me?” and more of like, “How can I learn from this? How can I work with this? How can I grow? How can I evolve and how is this getting me closer to my intent and where I want to be?”

That’s so brilliant what you just said. I love when I speak to people, and you speak to people and they always say to us, “This is not me. This is not who I am.” I look at them and go, “When did you decide as an adult or as a kid that this is not who you are?” If you have a choice to wake up at 4:00 AM and hit it hard, don’t wake up at 4:00 AM. I love when people say, “I’m not a morning person or an evening person.” That’s a shift in your brain which you have to make in order to accomplish your mission or your goal. I woke up from a coma after ten days and they said, “You’re paralyzed.” I didn’t have choice. I wanted to improve. I wanted to make a difference. I want to be able to share my life with my loved ones, and I wasn’t going to sit around and wait for something else to happen. On the show, I think we meet guests and meet people who really understand what it is to have the intention and to set the goals and to go after it.

What we share a lot is people who are going on their own epic adventure to healing. What we’ve discovered talking to people is that if three people could have a stroke, for example, and each one of them is going to heal or recover in a different way. It could be robotics, it could be meditation or it could be X, Y, Z. What we’ve discovered or what I believe personally is that there’s an essential state of being that one can embody when going into any of the things that they need to do. Let’s say you’re going to go do robotics to heal, but there’s still a foundational quality of who you are that you can embody to go do that. That’s really what I’ve been working on creating behind the scenes for our community and our audience. I took all of my knowledge from teaching yoga, from teaching meditation, from training celebrities and from training professional athletes on millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. I took all of that knowledge and I distilled it down into what are the foundational concepts, one that is easy to take action on immediately, but also for the most part, free and accessible.

It’s the easy button. I’m been watching you do this, and you’ve been working your ass off, and I’m so excited for you. I’m proud of you, but it makes sense because you’ve been experimenting with me and it’s the easy button. What you’re really doing is what Tony Robbins has taught me in the past. You’re recreating people’s identity to think differently, think outside the box, but we recreate who they are from the heart within.

It's okay to have a pity party, but just don't stay at the party very long. Click To Tweet

What I did was I ultimately came up with, I believe there are ten or eleven tips on the list which are these foundational qualities of your healing and being a successful human being. It’s things like fasting, meditation, what food you’re eating and getting all the toxic products out of your life. If we can create this foundation, we can do anything we want to do in life. It doesn’t matter if you want to jump out of a plane or you want to just walk down the street. There’s a foundation of who we all are as people.

What people don’t know if you haven’t met Taylor is he’s the most humble. The nicest, sweetest guy and probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever come across. When people meet him, they want more. He’s a chef, and he’ll be cooking for twelve people, and people would be standing there, watch him cook and ask him questions. I finally came up to say, “We’ve got to put it down on paper and we have to really elevate this to the next step and let people know your knowledge.” It’s working on me. I feel better. I feel strong, my endurance is clear and my third eye is opening because of this.

If you’re interested in starting to learn from us and what we believe in, you can jump over to AdventuresInHealth.tv, and you just punch your email in and sign up. I’m doing a video for each tip so I can give you a deeper understanding, but go over there, jump on the email list and connect with us. That’s how you’re going to start getting these resources to create the state of being from which you can do whatever you need to do to heal. You want this essential foundational state of being to do it from.

The way to get this is to put your email in and subscribe. That’s all you have to do, and you’re going to get his tips and his knowledge sent over to you in an email. How great is that? We’ve got some crazy, incredible wacky things coming up, which we’re just excited about.

We’re always onto something new. One more thing before we’ll jump into our special guest. If you haven’t popped over into iTunes yet, pop over there and press that subscribe button. That’s the easiest and cheapest way to support us. If you want to go that extra mile because you love us, drop a five-star rating and a review. That’s going to help us to grow this and get this knowledge, these resources, and these stories out to people who need to hear them so they can start to feel empowered and go on their own healing journey. That’s what we’re about. We’re about inspiring and motivating people, not just to look at the resources, but take action on the resources. If you want to support the show, that’s the easiest and quickest way to do it.

We’ve got GuestSYL21311 who says, “This podcast is on the septum of normal everyday living to thrive to live the fullest life. It gives a broad range of stories, triumphs, miracles, daily living, courage and faith to push forward in this thing we call life. It’s inspiring to others to never give up, push forward and take small steps to big achievements. Sean, you are a beautiful human and thank you for sharing your journey. Taylor, thank you for sharing your knowledge. The show gives you that extra reason why you can do anything you set your mind to.”

Intention and let’s take something from there. Let’s go into Andrew because he said the keyword, the triumph word. The triumph word is what I really think about is my buddy, Andrew Skinner. He’s a guy who literally was in his backyard snowboarding, hit a twig and was paralyzed on the scene. A full quadriplegic. This guy has come back. He’s built an organization of thousands. He’s gotten married with his girlfriend who was with him at the time. He’s now a father. This guy’s always given back. He gives back to veterans. I don’t want to give away too much, but I love him because I look at him and I go, “It’s not about why me, it’s about what’s next.” He’s what’s next. He keeps me going. He’s my progression. He’s my intention. I’m so excited to have on Andrew Skinner.

AIH 34 | Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal Cord Injury: Intention is about having a vision for the way you want your life to go and sticking to that and not letting the circumstances or events deter you.

 

I think Andrew does it so well. He took something that happened to him in life, something that was kind of horrifying and tremendously challenging. He said, “I’m going to create something amazing out of this,” and he really has because he brings people together to have fun.

He’s everybody’s hero. The things he does are outrageous. Every time I talk to him, he’s like, “Seany, come hang out with me. We’re going to be doing rugby.” I’m like, “Rugby? You’re in a wheelchair. I’m not doing that. I’ll watch you guys.” “We’re going to do rugby and in a wheelchair.” Next thing, he’s ax throwing or whatever he’s doing. I’m like, “If that excites you, go for it. I’ll be there to support you. I love you, but I’m not getting in a chair and going to play rugby.”

I’ll add one more thing and then we’ll go into his story. If you are reading this before April 27th and 28th of 2019, the Triumph Foundation, which is Andrew’s foundation, is hosting the Wheelchair Sports Fest. If you’re reading this and you want to go get involved and have an awesome day, check it out. Let’s go check out Andrew.

Welcome to the show, Andrew. How are you doing?

I’m doing fantastic. Thanks for having me.

Thank you for coming on. We’re excited to have you. Seany, how you doing over there?

I’m good. Andrew is on board.

Sometimes your attitude is the only thing you can change. Click To Tweet

Andrew, for all the readers who don’t know who you are and what you do, would you give them a quick who you are and what you do?

I suffered a spinal cord injury about fourteen years ago and I started a non-profit organization to help other people like myself that suffer a catastrophic injury to triumph over some of the obstacles they face. Our organization is called Triumph Foundation and we help people rebuild their lives.

You said you suffered a spinal cord injury. Do you want to go into just what that initial injury was? I would love to take people from how you went from that initial injury into creating this foundation to give back and to help people.

In 2004, I had just graduated from college. I had met the girl of my dreams, and I landed a great job and I was on top of the world. I had my whole life all planned out and I had my game plan offset. Six months after I graduated, I was up in the Big Bear Mountains by Lake Arrowhead in California, celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. It was a winter wonderland. It had snowed like crazy. We had spent our days building snowmen, having snowball fights, going sledding and snowboarding. On the day after Thanksgiving, November 26th of 2004, I was out in front of the cabin goofing off on my snowboard, going off a little jump that we had made. I went off the jump and I fell. It didn’t look like a hard landing, but apparently it was because I broke my fourth, fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae in my neck and was paralyzed instantly from the neck down leaving me a quadriplegic.

Life as I knew it was suddenly shattered into a million pieces. I was fortunate that I had a great family that was there, number one, to call for help. I wasn’t one to cry wolf. I was conscious after my accident. They didn’t think anything had happened by the appearance of the fall. They knew when I was lying there in the snow telling them I couldn’t move, that something serious had occurred. The emergency services came and dug me out of the snow. They carried me up the mountain and helicoptered me down to the nearest hospital where they reconstructed my neck. I started a whole new chapter of my life that I never saw coming.

When you came to the hospital and someone said, “You’re going to be paralyzed from the neck down,” what was your initial reaction when that first sank in?

Probably like most people, I didn’t really have a full understanding of what a spinal cord injury was. I had heard of Christopher Reeve and his accident, and I was very vaguely familiar with this community, of people with disabilities at large. When they diagnosed me, to be perfectly honest, I was in denial. At first, I thought similar to when you get the wind knocked out of you and you can’t breathe for a few seconds, then you suddenly catch your breath, and you shake it off and say, “That was crazy.” I thought those initial seconds laying there in the snow that my body would wake up any moment. Obviously, those moments turned into hours and days and now years. I’ve come a long way from where I first got injured and I beat my prognosis.

AIH 34 | Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal Cord Injury: Every single person in the world goes through a life-changing event that seems insurmountable.

 

In the beginning for C-4 quadriplegic, I wasn’t supposed to be able to breathe on my own. I wasn’t supposed to be able to move any part of my body except for maybe my neck and shoulders. I’m proud to say that I not only may be able to move my arms, but I’m also able to move my leg a little bit. It took me a long time to get here, but through hard work, physical therapy, determination and the grace of God, I’ve gotten a lot of return of function back. It took me a long time to come to grips with the fact that this injury wasn’t going to heal overnight. It was going to be something that I was going to need to learn to live with.

All my anger, frustration, depression and all those emotions that you would naturally go through when you suffer such a catastrophic loss, I put all that into my workouts in therapy. I was fortunate that I had not only a family that was there for me but the girl of my dreams, Kirsten. She stayed by my side. She was there not only as a shoulder to cry on, but she was there to give me a good kick in the ass sometimes when I needed it. I was driven to be the best man that I could be for her. I was also fortunate that people that had gotten injured before me that came and mentored me and gave me hope. That’s the seed that was planted in my heart that I wanted to pay that forward to help other people in the same way that I was so fortunate to get help.

You’re touching on what we’ve noticed is a theme in a lot of these amazing recovery stories, which is having loved ones by your side that are there to support you, but also there to push you. Just having that community to say, “You’re not alone. Everything’s going to be okay.” What you experienced is this tremendous loss of identity, correct me if I’m wrong. You have to shift into this new identity in this new state of living.

That’s exactly right. Being a man, I had to learn how to ask and receive help and that was very difficult. Certainly, my body image of looking into the mirror and being crippled, there are no two ways about it. I still have quite a bit of impairment. My hands don’t work very good. I have limited upper body strength and I still use a wheelchair to get around. I was very self-conscious in the beginning of other people’s perceptions. It wasn’t until one day, I was really struggling with what I saw in the mirror. One of my mentors, Bobby Rohan, who had gotten injured before me said, “I used to feel that way too.”

One day, I decided that I’m a celebrity, I’m going to own it, and this is who I am and people are going to treat me different, so I’m just going to change my expectations. When I go places, I’m going to get front row parking because I’m a celebrity. I’m a rock star. When I go to a door, people are going to open that door for me because I’m a rock star. When I go into a crowd, everybody’s going to move out of my way. Everybody’s got to look at me because I’m a rock star. They’re going to remember my name. It’s the paradigm of the way you perceive yourself and the way you carry yourself and still looking people in the eyes. It took time. It’s not a realization, an epiphany overnight. I believe that what I did in physical therapy and me putting all my efforts into regaining strength, that really helped with my own identity and finding myself. Eventually, it was liking what I see in the mirror again.

I get it, Andrew, because it’s acceptance. It took me forever to get that. What inspired me big time is when I first met you on your 5K. It was a 5K we did together. They told me early on, “You may never walk again.” When I saw you wheeling around and here I am in pain walking the 5K, I was like, “I can’t complain. This guy’s happy. He’s go-lucky. He’s the rock star of this whole event and he’s got this team next to him.” I couldn’t help but just enjoy the walk and the fact that I was able to put one foot in front of the other. It took me probably until I met you to accept this because I look in the mirror and go, “Where am I and what’s going on?” I think so many people can identify with that on so many levels because once you get injured, have a stroke, brain injury or something of that sort, it tears apart your mental confidence.

This injury is not just physical, it’s mental and emotional. Sometimes that’s the hardest part, is the paralysis of the mind, trying to get your head wrapped around it. As much as it can always be better, Lord knows it can always be a lot worse. It’s all about maximizing your abilities. Every single person in the world goes through a life-changing event that seems insurmountable that they wish they could overcome. Everybody goes through something that they can have to learn to live with. Sometimes your attitude is the only thing you can change. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s so true.

Be around positive people because it's contagious. Click To Tweet

It’s so true, Andrew. It’s brilliant. That’s a big thing that I think we have to teach everybody is your brain can heal your body, but your mindset and your certainty, your confidence is really what Taylor teaches me and the team next to me and it’s okay to be where we’re at. It’s funny you started talking about your parking spot. I have a handicap placard myself. People go, “Do you still use it?” I said, “I earned it and it cost me $2 million.” I may not need it every time, but we worked our way to get back. It’s not that we’re not taking advantage of it.

It’s just rock star parking.

My two little girls love it because they’re like, “Dad, there’s a spot right there.” The parking lot is full and we get it.

I get upset when I pull up because I drive around with Sean a lot. I get upset, I’ll pull up somewhere and I’ll see no spots open, and there are five handicap spots. I’m like, “Where’s Sean when I need him?”

Andrew, you now have a daughter or a son?

I have a daughter. I am really blessed. Kirsten, my girlfriend at the time, she stuck by me. I remember when I was first lying there in the hospital and being diagnosed that I was going to be a quadriplegic, I was telling her to leave. I remember looking her in the eyes and saying, “You’ve got to go. I wrecked my life.” We were 24 years old at the time. We were just starting off and I said, “You need to go find a man.” She looked at me and said, “I didn’t fall in love with you because you could walk. I didn’t go, “That guy walks good. I want to go with him.” She said, “I fell in love with you for what’s inside your heart.” She said, “Never say that to me again.”

I zipped it. I was determined to be the best man I can be for her. I tried to return to work as soon as I possibly could after about a year or two. That was to save up enough money to put a ring on her finger before she smartened up. I’m proud to say that we got married about three years after my injury. Sean, we have a beautiful daughter in 2010. We got pregnant. I have a daughter. Her name is Betty and she’s just a joy of my life. I remember being there initially in the hospital thinking all of these things were going to be out of reach, that it’s impossible for me to be a family man. I’m proud to say that I have a wonderful family and I’ve got the dog, a house with a mortgage. I’m living the American dream despite all the things that I’ve gone through.

AIH 34 | Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal Cord Injury: Everybody that gets hurt is universally unprepared and needs help to rebuild their lives.

 

Let me go back there, Andrew, because it’s common with us. The first thing that we want to do is lash out to everybody who we love and we push everybody away. The fact that she stuck by you is totally awesome. Some people do and some people don’t. We can become violent, not physically, but just mentally, emotionally and supercharged in the wrong way. The fact that she stuck by you is really a miracle, to say the least. To be a father and to live the dream is awesome because I have that too. I’m not married at the time, but I commonly see a lot of people who go through injuries that the families will split and then they’ll break up.

It’s not common that the relationships stay together, and it does fracture a lot of people’s spouses and girlfriends. A lot of times there is breaking up and shattering of that. I was really fortunate that Kirsten stayed by my side. I think a lot has to do with attitude. If you are mean or angry, people are not going to want to be around you. If you tried to put a smile on your face and find the silver linings of the dark clouds, people will be attracted to that. Everybody goes through these kinds of things differently.

I want to point out that it’s not just me that suffered loss from this injury. It was everyone around me. It impacted my mom and dad, my brother and my sister, obviously Kirsten and I, my friends and really the whole community. Sometimes the family, the support network, they bear as much as a burden as the person that actually suffers the injury, a disorder, disease or what have you. They have to pick up the slack and do a lot of the caregiving. It was a lot of stress on these people and I like to call them the silently disabled. They’re going through as much as the struggles, but they don’t get the sympathy.

I was in a coma for ten days and my parents and my family were freaking out because they all felt helpless. The fact that people don’t know what to do in the beginning. It’s patience, it’s waiting and their time is going to come. I share this a lot with my other shows is you’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to let that person get through what they’re doing, got to get back to where they can, then your job’s going to come. If it wasn’t for my two daughters and my parents, I don’t know where I’d be. I say this often, my mother had to raise me twice. Once at birth and once all again at 39 because I had to move back in with my parents. They had to do everything from me in the beginning, from the shower to getting dressed to learning to drive. It’s tough, but it’s about getting through those hard moments. How do you deal with your tough moments now, Andrew? Every time I meet you, you’re so upbeat, you’re so passionate. I’m sure you have your bad days.

There are still going through some grieving, mourning and depression sometimes, but I also think that’s natural and I think it’s a good thing. When you go through something like this, I meet other people, I worry more about the people that aren’t mourning, that aren’t sad. You need to go through those stages. Some days I have bad days, some days it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. I also think that’s true for any human being. Sometimes you’re just not feeling great. It’s okay to be depressed. Our joke is, it’s okay to have a pity party, but don’t stay at the party very long. You’ve got to get out.

Be around positive people and it’s contagious. Something that’s been very therapeutic for me is helping other people in similar situations. It brings me back to where I was in the beginning and put things in perspective of how far I’ve come. You touched on it too, Sean, which is I’m very blessed that I have a great family. Not everybody has that. Not everybody has that support system. That’s one of the drives for me, was I was so fortunate to have that support network. I want to be there for other people that don’t, so we try to embrace people as our brothers, our sisters and our family members that are tragically grafted into this disability family. We’re the club that no one wants to join. Once you’re in, triumph comes alongside you and treats you as a loved one.

It’s healthy to grieve and it’s healthy to feel this. I’ve got another one for you. You said, “Don’t stay at the pity party too long.” I heard or read another one that’s about depression. Specifically, the word depressed. They say the word depressed when you like sound it out. It sounds like a deep rest. I think for any human being, it’s this time when we get into those states because we all do. You’re totally right, it’s a human experience. It’s that time to accept it. Go stay in bed all day. It’s not a big deal to stay in bed all day, just don’t stay there for a lifetime.

Little accomplishments can lead to some significant milestones and huge achievements in life. Click To Tweet

It’s also common. One of the first steps is to admit it and tell other people that you are struggling. Sometimes people bottle it all up and I think that is the wrong way to go about it. You need to have a friend.

Andrew, what’s so great about you and what you do with the 5K and your foundation and then all of this stuff is that if you’re having a bad day, you go hang out with Andrew and see his people because it lightened me up. It gave me a smile to see other people. I’ll never forget this story. I was walking into your 5K and I was struggling, and I had to get stretched. I was getting tight and we were probably coming up on the third mile. I looked to my right and here was this guy in a chair, wheeling himself along and using one finger to use his wheelchair.

It’s motorized. He has his daughter and his nurse behind him. Here was this guy smiling and all he has on his body is one finger he was using. He was pushing this, I call it the wheelchair, go-kart or whatever it was. I was like, “I don’t have any more pain. This guy is smiling. I’m walking.” This guy was cooking a meal in his kitchen, took a fall and became a full quad. He had one use of his finger. His daughter was behind him and his caregiver or nurse. That gave me a real perspective of what you do. I almost cried at that moment, but I got to the finish line and I said a prayer to God. I hugged my coach, I hugged everybody and said, “I did it.”

This guy wheeled over. We wheeled over. I’ll never forget you coming to me with a big hug and saying, “Sean, say cheese, let’s take a picture.” All I could think about was that guy with the one finger. I’ll never forget that day for the rest of my life. That’s where it actually taught me, “It’s not about why me, it’s about what’s next,” because someone always next to you is going to have it a lot worse. There’s a saying I like to use, “You cry when you had no shoes until you meet a man who’s got no feet.” Your events really bring things in perspective. No matter how bad a day, traffic or you’re late for something, you spilled coffee on yourself, just show up or look at Andrew or look at our stories, I promise you, we will put a smile on your face. That’s what Andrew does for me. Every time I see your emails and you email me a lot, I can’t help but smile. Thank you for that.

It’s a fellowship. We’re all in this together. Everybody suffers a loss in life. Mine happens to be very physical and very visible. In some ways, that’s a good thing because I get compassion, I get sympathy, I get empathy. People look at me and say, “He’s gone through some real crap.” Whatever they might be going through a little bit easier, if they can see that, “I’m out of the house.” Somehow I’m finding joy in life and there are far worse things that can happen to people that no one ever sees. Someone could have traumatic childhood experiences, they can have a disease and they could have all these different things happen to them. They could be in the grocery store standing next to somebody in line that has gone through the same exact thing, but they don’t know. They can’t recognize that. One of the blessings in disguise from what I went through and Sean, you too, we can see each other a hundred yards away and say, “I feel I could talk to Sean and I know that you and I have that bond of suffering an injury, suffering something that’s been really tough to go through in life.”

On that note, what do you do with the veterans? I know you have a big heart for them and we have a special guest, Thai Starkovich, who’s been through the war himself and a fourteen-year vet. I’m sure you see a lot of these guys come through your foundation and I’m sure you outfit them with gear as well. There’s a huge number out there who are disabled vets who aren’t getting the reciprocity needed to help them.

Triumph Foundation, the non-profit that I started, we help children, adults and veterans. Basically, that means anyone. Everybody that gets hurt is universally unprepared and needs help to rebuild their lives. Obviously, I have a big heart for everyone we meet, but especially the men and women that served in our military. We’re a traveling circus, visiting people in various hospitals located throughout Southern California. We do peer mentoring and we bring in care baskets that are full of resources, a toolkit to help them rebuild the educational side. We make a special effort to work within the VA system. We’re in there as the first responders as far as the peer mentors go. Talking to the guys that maybe are in war, maybe they got hurt after discharge driving their car.

AIH 34 | Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal Cord Injury: Getting better every day is a universal thing where we are all trying to be better tomorrow than we are today.

 

There are all sorts of stories of veterans that also suffer catastrophic accidents. We’re there on the front lines meeting them and then we do put on some special events just for veterans. We’re fortunate enough to build a partnership with the University of Cal State Northridge. We put on hand cycling and kayaking events specifically for veterans through the help of the VA. We also have a lot of veterans that come and volunteer for us. A lot of veterans that come home, maybe they don’t have a disability, but they’re also still trying to find themselves. They’re put back into the general population again. Oftentimes, they experience some things that they are still coming to terms with and we give them opportunities for service above themselves. I think that’s really what the military is about. We always say the mission continues when you get home. One of the ways they can do that is by volunteering and helping and doing human kindness stuff. With that, I’d love to learn more about Thai and his program.

Thank you, guys for all the work that you do, connecting everyone and giving back to that community because they definitely deserve it for all the service that they do. I know we’re talking about everything that the Triumph Foundation does, but just to give a little bit more, how did you get started with that during your recovery journey? Where did that idea first start to take form?

With Triumph, in 2008, I had a great job. It was working and then we had a big recession. I found myself with more free time on my hands. I started to re-engage with the spinal cord injury community and saw that there are a lot of unmet health needs. I started coming home and told my wife, my brother and my family, “They should be doing this and they should be doing that. Why aren’t they doing these programs?” One day they said, “Andrew, why don’t you do something about it?” I did. I decided to start Triumph Foundation. We called it Triumph partially because of the motto, “Triumph over tragedy,” and also partially because we’ve always had a family fondness of Triumph motorcycles. There is a take on that. When we started off, the initial way we raised money was by selling t-shirts out of the back of my van. I knew if I put a Triumph logo or similar logo on our t-shirts, at least my family would buy one for me.

That was the genesis of Triumph was just meeting the men and women at rehab at the same hospital where I did. From there, we started the care basket program, bringing them some goodies and sweets to hopefully make their hospital stay a little nicer. Also, a bunch of resources that I wish someone would have told me about. That was the genesis of it all. We started recognizing other unmet needs from people needing help making their home accessible, putting ramps in front of houses, widening doorways, remodeling bathrooms, doing things like that. Helping people that had inadequate health insurance that weren’t even able to get a wheelchair or proper equipment.

Eventually, those things developed into a grant program. We’d not only help people with the newly injured squirt, but we give out grants to help people with financial hardship to get necessary things. One hospital turned into the two, three, four, five and now we go to around twenty hospitals. We lead fifteen different support groups that are polka dotting all over Southern California, from Santa Barbara to San Diego. We’ve helped the Long Beach VA start their spinal cord injury peer support program. I’m proud of that, and we’re still very much involved with building up the community’s capacity to serve anybody with a spinal cord injury or really any disability.

We specialize in spinal cord injury because that’s what happened to me. Similar to Sean and I, stroke, spinal cord injury, track, brain injury, MS, Guillain-Barre and all these weird things that can happen to people. We all find ourselves in the family tree if you will. We try to meet people where they’re at and make their life a little bit easier and getting them successfully reintegrated back to the community. Sean and I are talking about some of our activities. We do lots of sports and recreational stuff to get people out, pushing the limits of their ability. Our biggest fear is the people getting out of the hospital, living a sedentary life and don’t ever get out of the house. We want to give them opportunities to come out and play.

It sounds like you saw a need that you wished something was happening in the world and you said, “I’m just going to take action on this and I’m going to build the Triumph Foundation.” It’s blown up and it’s incredible all the work that you’re doing. Do you have any stories from your years doing this and working with people and connecting with the community of heartwarming triumph stories that you want to share with us? I know I’m putting you on spot.

If you tried to put a smile on your face and find the silver linings of the dark clouds, people will be attracted to that. Click To Tweet

There are so many stories that were being told. Many people had told me that when we met them initially in the hospital, they still hadn’t gotten their mind wrapped around the fact that this was not just a bad dream. We gave them that care pack and it was their first sense that there might be a life worth living for them and hope. Maybe I didn’t hear from them for another year, sometimes two, sometimes more, but they always knew that they can call upon us. When they did, it wasn’t necessarily admitting defeat that they are reaching out to others that had gone through something similar. At the end of the day, we’re all regular people that had something bad happened to us too. We all feel differently.

We’re all snowflakes and so there is no definitive prognosis as far as you’re going to recover like this or that. Two people get out the exact same thing happened to them and have different results. Some people do walk, some people do make miraculous recoveries. Some of us have learned to live with some of the impairments. It’s all about finding life with a purpose and somehow finding joy. That’s really what we specialize in. Some of the highlights, to get back to your question, I think some of our sports and recreational activities. We do a Wheelchair Sports Festival that’s on the last weekend of April. We do ten different sports, everything from a wheelchair basketball to murderball, to hand cycling to scuba diving, to skate park. You name it, all of it.

The best part is it’s all-inclusive. Everyone gets to play. Some of the best stories are you get a man that maybe had gotten into a motorcycle accident and he’s got a teenage son, and now he’s being coddled and treated differently at home. They come out through the sports festival. It’s the first time that we put the dad and the son into a rugby chair to play murderball. It’s like bumper cars and wheelchairs. It’s the first time that they get to roughhouse again together. Other stories of kids that maybe grew up with a disability and they’re always chosen last at school to play games, activities and things of that nature. They come out to this event and we’re putting all the other kids in two chairs. Now they’re the leader of the pack, doing circles around everybody else and putting them to shame. It’s just really fun to see those kinds of experience happen. We’re there for people throughout your journey. We are the continuum of care.

Our healthcare industry is so messed up. People are getting discharged from the hospital sometimes within weeks after injury and they’re completely lost in the world that they never dreamed they become a part of. They get sent home and they don’t know where to turn. We’re there for them to help them rebuild to triumph. Our ultimate goal is to have them pay it forward and join our army of ambassadors that are on the front lines, going in the hospital rooms to give the next person that hope. Sadly, Sean, you and I, we’re not the last ones to have this happen to us. We’re not the first, we’re not the last, so we want to be there for the next generation of people that suffer an injury like this.

I love that idea of going to someone and making everyone get in the wheelchair and they’re the star. They’re the celebrity or they’re the rock star. It does two things. It makes them feel special, but it also makes everyone begin to understand on a deeper level of what they’re struggling with, what they’re going through or their perspective. If anyone’s ever read the book To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s a famous quote in there, which is, “You don’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” What you’re doing is you’re helping, put people in your shoes or someone like your shoes to help them understand and connect on a deeper level.

I think doing it through sports and activities, they don’t necessarily feel bad. They’re looking up to us. They’re not saying, “These poor guys, they’re pushed around in a wheelchair.” They’re looking at us and go, “These guys are studs. Look how fast they can push a wheelchair. They’re doing circles around us.” It’s less of a feeling sorry for somebody. We do a lot of youth programs where we go into schools and talk to students about number one, safety and life can change in an incident. We talk about inclusiveness and then highlighting people with disabilities in a way that they don’t often see. Spend a Day in a Chair, those programs are great. It’s also awesome to put them in a game where they’re competing against these wheelchair athletes and we show them who the real challenge athletes are. By the end of the day, their arms are ready to fall off. They can’t believe the amount of endurance, skill and strength that a lot of people with disabilities have.

That’s so awesome that you guys do that.

What you’re talking about is what I’ve learned is that if you sit around and wait for it, it’s not going to happen. If you show up and you get active and you keep moving, you are going to improve. That’s what I learned early on in rehab and that’s what we continue to go do. The small gains will lead to big outcomes. It’s the constant movement of what I think is going to really help everybody here whether you’re in mental anguish or physical despair. If you’re injured, you’re hurt and as we spoke about too, Andrew, is the mental health. By getting out there and participating in your events, even as a spectator or joining you in the chairs and doing your murderball, which I have no desire to ever do on my life. It sounds horrible. I’m joking with you because I’m not good in the wheelchair myself being one-handed. Watching you being a part of it puts a smile on everyone’s face there. Smiles are contagious.

That’s exactly right. Setting goals that are attainable. We talk to people, “This is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” You don’t want to set a goal that is unreachable because if you set too far off goals that you never actually achieve, then you never feel good. It’s better to set a goal. We work a lot with motivational speaking and stuff. People, I say, “I really want to get in shape and I want to exercise. Every week now I’m going to run five miles.” That is great and I’d love to see you do that, but why don’t you set a short, easy goal every day. You’re going to put your running shoes on and you’re going to walk to your mailbox. That’s a goal that you can achieve no matter what. Nine times out of 10, they put their running shoes on, they walk out to the mailbox. “I’m already here. I’ll just keep going down the street.” Little accomplishments can lead to some major milestones and huge achievements in life. It’s trying to chunk things down so they can get after it.

You’re giving them a little bite-size pieces. What I picked up on listening to you talk, and your story and what you guys do is you’re helping create almost this internal mindset and landscape that is not affected by what’s happening on the outside. You’re helping to bring that to the community and you’re helping to share the beauty that’s inside of all of us, regardless of what happens.

We try to create a movement within the entire community of living life with a purpose and making the best of what you’ve got. It’s Triumph, the logo, the brand and the name. Anybody can be attracted to it. Our motto is, “Getting better every day,” and that’s a universal thing. It is trying to be better tomorrow than you are now. I think everybody aspires to do that. It’s not just people with a spinal cord injury, it’s not just a person with a disability. It’s in anyone out there that wants to get involved. It’s contagious like Sean was mentioning. You get around these people and in other ways, you might say, “Those poor guys.” When you get around them and you see them doing as much as they can for themselves and doing it with a smile, you think, “Maybe I don’t have it as bad as I thought.” It can make a cloudy day be sunshine again in some ways by putting things in perspective.

Getting better every day is just universal for anyone. Thank you for sharing that. I love that you have lots of good one-liners and sayings. I’ve got one question that we ask everybody and so I’ll ask it to you, what’s your inspiration?

My inspiration is in a lot of ways, I feel God doesn’t give us more than we can handle and that there is purpose in life. I was driven to be the man for my wife. My wife certainly is my rock and my angel. She gives me the drive. I remember initially in the hospital, being diagnosed with a spinal cord injury and quadriplegia, I thought, “What could I possibly contribute to the community?” There was an epiphany moment when I just decided it doesn’t matter how long I live or what I’m physically able to do, what matters is how I live. My challenge to everybody out there that might be reading is how are you living? What are you doing with your life? I think that’s really service above herself as one of the most fulfilling things that you could do is to help your neighbor. That’s the American way and that’s why we started our charity.

Let everybody know where they can connect with you and how they can get involved? We’ll help spread awareness and spread the word about what you all are up to.

They can check us out. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, all those social media links. Look up Triumph Foundation. We also have the handle @TriumphOverSCI. You can visit our website, which is SupportTriumph.org. If you go there, you’ll learn about our events. All of them are all-inclusive. We do everything. This weekend we’re doing horse and chariot driving. We’re going to have a chariot, a carriage that people are going to get in and they’re going to drive a horse through an obstacle course. We do kayaking and cycling, 5K’s, all sorts of activities. Everyone’s invited, come out and play. We’re certainly there for the resources and lending you our ears and heart. If you’re going through something catastrophic, you are not alone and you are not reinventing the wheel. We are here for you.

If you’re reading right now and you or someone you love is going through it or you want to have fun because it sounds like you all just like to have fun, go check out the website. Get Involved and we’ll see you. Thank you so much, Andrew, for coming on, sharing your story and sharing what you do. You’re very inspiring to all of us out there, no matter what we’re going through.

Thank you, guys. I feel the same way about you guys, getting to talk to you offline. Just what you have done with your lives, I’m super impressed. It’s nice to be around such great company. Thank you for having me.

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About Andrew Skinner

AIH 34 | Spinal Cord InjuryAndrew suffered a spinal cord injury on November 2004 and I am a recovering quadriplegic. In August 2008, Andrew along with his wife Kirsten founded Triumph Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, whose mission is to help children, adults, and Veterans with Spinal Cord Injury/Disorder (SCI) to triumph over their disability and to inspire them to keep moving forward with their lives by pushing themselves to get better every day.

The organization works to minimize the obstacles that one faces after suffering traumatic injury by provides resources, hope, and security to people living with paralysis – not just initially when the injury occurs, but as a lifelong support network. Triumph Foundation is the go-to organization for people living with mobility impairments in Southern California.

 

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