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New Grant Helps Promote Active Lifestyles in People with Spinal Cord Injury

A new program will help individuals and their communities learn about and access resources for healthy living.

Thanks to a new grant from the California-based Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, Shepherd Center will extend its mission beyond the hospital’s doors. Targeting individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI), the one-year grant totaling more than $65,000 will fund a four-tiered program called “From Injury to Integration: Closing the Healthcare Gap.” The program will help individuals and their home communities learn about and access resources that promote active, healthy lifestyles.

“Shepherd Center already operates several health and wellness programs through ProMotion and Beyond Therapy®,” says Shari McDowell, director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at Shepherd Center. “These services have existed for a long time, but this grant allows us to look beyond our walls. When patients finish their time with Shepherd Center, we want to extend our support beyond that initial rehabilitation experience by helping them truly reintegrate into society and learn skills that will lead to healthier lifestyles.”

Unfortunately, McDowell says, there is often a lack of community-based health education, wellness programs and recreational activities for people with SCI. Yet these individuals show an increased risk for early cardiovascular disease, which is also the leading cause of death in this patient population.

This program’s tiered framework is designed to help mitigate this risk and overcome barriers to reintegration by educating individuals and communities on the importance of wellness programs tailored specifically to individuals with SCI.

Four components comprise “From Injury to Integration: Closing the Healthcare Gap”:

  1. Health, wellness and leisure expo: This June 27, 2015 event at Shepherd Center will incorporate guest speakers, exhibit booths and demonstrations addressing topics such as nutrition and weight loss, blood pressure monitoring, exercise, women’s health, diabetes management, healthy skin care, emotional support, smoking cessation and respiratory health. It is open to the public, and the Neilsen Foundation grant will fund travel scholarships for 15 people with SCI who would benefit from participating in the expo.
  1. Train-the-trainer community wellness program: Modeled after a successful Shepherd Center partnership with Delta Air Lines, this program component will engage other nonprofit organizations that promote health and fitness. Initial outreach will extend to local YMCA facilities, says Becky Washburn, Shepherd Center’s ProMotion and Beyond Therapy director. “Anyone who comes through Shepherd Center, we’re training them and their family members on what they need to do when they get back home to remain active and healthy,” Washburn explains. “What we haven’t been able to do is impact the larger community in this way. We can’t see everyone, but if people have the knowledge and the right tools, they’re better positioned to engage in an active lifestyle over the long term.”

Shepherd Center staff members will visit fitness facilities to educate staff members there on SCI and its effects on physical mobility, as well as provide them with information on hardware and technologies that can contribute to heathy living. An example is grasping cuffs for upper-body bikes. The first training session is slated for March.

  1. Community-based health and wellness program: Shepherd Center will host six community-based and wellness events – three in Greater Atlanta and three in the Southeast – to promote exercise and long-term health. This third tier seeks to raise awareness of risks such as obesity and hypertension, and offer hands-on recreation opportunities to mitigate those risks. Those opportunities include handcycling, tennis, softball and other activities at local recreation centers. The first community-based program will be held at Shepherd Center in March with others to follow throughout 2015.
  1. Community re-entry and accessibility assessment activities: This component of the program will work with current or former Shepherd Center SCI patients to help assess, then eliminate, barriers for becoming – and staying – active. Specific activities include:
  • Visits to local fitness centers.
  • Assistance in establishing an exercise program customized for the individual.
  • Home visits that offer tailored home modification recommendations.
  • Visits to college campuses, including dorm rooms, student centers and campus fitness facilities, to help prepare individuals for active lifestyles as part of their college experience.
  • Work-site visits to improve existing work environments or to create new activities in which individuals can participate after returning to work.

For more information on the “From Injury to Integration: Closing the Healthcare Gap” program, contact Spinal Cord Injury Program director Shari McDowell at or 404-350-7676. To sign up for any of the health and wellness clinics, visit

Written By Shawn Reeves

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.