Atlanta, GA,
10:22 AM

Paying It Forward: JJ Brown’s Story

When avid outdoorsman JJ Brown sustained a spinal cord injury, he found a new passion for recreation therapy and giving back to others.

On a chilly evening in December 2018, JJ Brown laced up his boots and headed out to spend a few hours deer hunting with a friend from work. As he settled into the tree stand, the floor beneath him gave way, sending him plummeting 20 feet to the ground. He was rushed to Memorial Health in Savannah, Georgia, where he learned he had sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury.

As JJ transferred from Memorial Health to Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program, he was overwhelmed by the amount of support he received from family, friends, and his church community.

“People came out of the woodwork,” he says. “My now late stepdad started a GoFundMe, and people in the community I hadn’t talked to in a while came to see me. It was wild. All these people cared and pulled together to help me.”

One visitor was Chris Heitzman, a lifelong friend of JJ’s. Chris had insight into recovery at Shepherd Center because he had been a patient himself. Six years before JJ’s injury, Chris sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a car crash and spent months in Shepherd Center’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program.

“He gave me hope, especially at the time,” says JJ. “It was really mentally hard for me, and he gave me inspiration to not give up.”

Under the care of Wes Chay, M.D., JJ began making progress and developing habits that would help him lead a healthier lifestyle. He started attending outings with Shepherd Center’s recreation therapy program, which is funded by generous support from donors, to hone his outdoor skills, including hunting.

“After I left Shepherd Center, I started going hunting with the KT Team,” says JJ. “KT is a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities get back to the outdoors. That’s how I got hooked on turkey hunting. That’s basically all I hunt now.”

Through recreational therapy activities like hunting, JJ also found his calling to give back.

“I went back to my old fraternity house, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, at Georgia Southern, and there was an active brother there who uses a wheelchair,” JJ explains. “I was able to take him on a KT Team hunting trip as his guide, and that’s when it clicked in my heart that this is what I needed to do. I needed to pay it forward.”

From that point on, paying it forward was precisely what JJ did. He started searching for volunteer opportunities to reintegrate into the community including local chapters of Shriners and Masons. He also found joy in giving back to his church community by running sound and lighting and counseling middle and high school youth. Eventually, he joined Shepherd Center’s Junior Committee, a volunteer group of young professionals committed to advancing Shepherd Center’s mission through fundraising and volunteer opportunities. During that time, he was contacted by Chris’ family.

“Chris’ dad saw that I was volunteering and knew I was also looking for some way to support myself,” JJ says. “He asked how I would feel about becoming a caregiver for Chris. It was a godsend.”

With all the progress he had made, JJ felt confident in his ability to care for Chris and took classes to become his legal caregiver. Today, the two lean on each other for support and brotherhood, while JJ provides essential support to Chris. They go on outings like Atlanta Braves games, working out at the gym, and mini golf. JJ also assists Chris in getting to and from his job at Publix.

“Chris is just such a huge blessing,” JJ says. “He keeps me humble and reminds me every day of the blessings I have.”

One of those blessings, JJ says, is recreation therapy.

“Life is never the same after a traumatic injury,” JJ says. “Prayer, help from family and friends, and recreation therapy saved my life.”

Written by Lindsey Rieben.

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.