James “Woody” Beckham was playing in a club rugby game for Florida Atlantic University when he ended up on the field after a tackle.
He knew something was wrong.
“I was trying to get the ball back and I hesitated — I’ll never forget hesitating,” said Woody, then 22, who was playing against the University of Miami at UM.
In that split second, Woody got kneed in the neck and became paralyzed from the chest down. He was rushed to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He was certain he’d walk out of there, but that day never came.
“I don’t think you mentally ever accept it,” says Beckham, now 31.
He was in the ICU for 11 days and at the Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital for 59 days. While there, the therapists helped him adapt to his new reality. They took him and other paralyzed patients to outings in the community, where they could relearn to live, such as taking the metro, using public restrooms, doing groceries and beating the weather.
The outings brought the most joy to Woody, but one day a therapist told him they couldn’t take him out anymore, because the department had gone through its allotted budget. So Woody suggested paying for himself.
“That’s where the challenge began. Woody could afford it, but other patients couldn’t, so we couldn’t go with some patients and leave others behind,” said Woody’s therapist, Kelly Messett, 46.
That’s where the The Woody Foundation comes in.
Just six months after his injury, Woody and his family founded The Woody Foundation and made their first donation of $20,000 to the rehab hospital. Every year since, they have donated Woody’s age in money. This year, they donated $31,000 — he’s 31 — which Woody and his family donated to the rehab hospital in a birthday celebration on Oct. 1. The funds have gone to buying more rehab equipment and establishing a community budget to enable more outings.
“Every year he comes here and does this,” Messett said.
While Woody had a great experience going through rehab, he knew it could be so much better, if people from the community pitched in.
“We felt like the community here [Jackson rehab] was great, but they needed some support,” said Candice Beckham, Woody’s mother.
“Everything that goes on in a hospital is a business decision. If it doesn’t make sense for the business, they don’t do it,” said Woody.
To raise money, the foundation hosts fishing tournaments, golf tournaments, and a blowfish fishing tournament.
Lucy Foerster, 35, is Woody’s cousin and the director of the foundation because “I’ve always been the party planner,” she said. She also lives just a couple blocks from Woody in Coconut Grove, where he lives on his own with a roommate and aide.
“Community involvement in our family has always been a big thing,” Lucy said.
Woody rides around in an electrical wheelchair that he can maneuver with his hands – he still has some movement, though uncoordinated – in his upper extremities. He’s also found a multitude of items that help with his daily life, such as a fork and spoon that he can configure to his hands so he doesn’t have to hold them. He has a hard time grasping objects.
As a result, he’s developed “the Woody pack,” a backpack with all these objects, which he donates to the hospital or to people in the community.
“Early on I wanted to become as independent as possible. So I started tinkering with objects that could help me, and after about a year, I realized that the market was really real and I wanted to share the items with others who also have limited hand functioning,” Woody said.
Woody Foundation: 305-586-3107; http://www.woody<code_dp>foundation.org/