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Meet Carrie Callahan of Empower Spinal Cord Injury in Somerville

Today we’d like to introduce you to Carrie Callahan.

Carrie, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Since I graduated from Ithaca College in 2003 with a Masters in Physical Therapy my career has focused in one area, helping people with spinal cord injuries. For me, working with individuals with spinal cord injuries is about having the opportunity to make a profound positive impact on a person during one of the biggest challenges they will face in life. It is challenging, but such rewarding work, and the bonds that you make with someone during this time are stronger than many other relationships that one forms throughout their life. Working at an inpatient rehabilitation program, it was often frustrating to send a person home too soon, simply because their insurance couldn’t see the continued importance and value of rehab following a catastrophic injury of this nature. This frustration was the catalyst for Liz Lima-Remillard, Jessica Goodine and myself to start up the non-profit Empower Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), Inc.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Starting up and growing Empower has been a learning process. The three of us founders are all therapists, and went to college to learn how to help people function, and not how to run a non-profit. We started in 2010 with a strong vision and desire to help individuals, and along the way have had to learn all of the many roles that are necessary when starting up a non-profit, from event planning to marketing to bookkeeping and everything in between. I think our biggest obstacle was our first year prior to our pilot program: selling our idea about the summer program that we knew would be such a great experience for participants, but didn’t have proof that we could pull it off. A huge milestone in the planning process was meeting with Pamela Block and finding our home at Stony Brook University on Long Island. We didn’t want the program to be so far from where we each lived, but we knew that a supportive faculty and university would be crucial to our success, and we knew that we would still be able to pull participants from throughout the New England area. We ran many small fundraisers that year, and relied heavily on donations from our social network to have the funds to pull off our inaugural 1-week pilot program, and we were so blown away by the positive impact that the program ended up having on not only our participants, but our volunteers, and ourselves. Fast-forward 6 years later and we are still learning how to be more effective and efficient with our funds and our fundraisers. We have had 5 successful 2-week summer programs, where we have had a profound positive impact on over 50 individuals with spinal cord injuries, helped to educate hundreds of allied health students about disability awareness and living with a spinal cord injury, and are now looking to add a second site for our summer program.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Our main program at Empower is a 2-week residential rehabilitation program for individuals with post-acute spinal cord injury. Each year for two weeks in July, we take over the campus of Stony Brook University with over 60 volunteers and 12 participants from across the country. Our program is the only of its kind in the nation, providing a 2-week summer program which is a client-centered, holistic approach to recovery, which includes rehabilitation counseling, peer mentoring, physical and occupational therapy, adaptive sports and recreation, massage therapy, and social re-integration. Empower’s Summer Program is unique in that we provide the participant care 24 hours/day for the 2-week period. Because of this we are able to work on participant’s goals during real-life circumstances, without being confined to the walls of a clinic, and a 30-45 minute time-block. Being outside of the comfort of their regular caregivers and established routines and in a supportive, positive environment; participants are able to break out of their mold, challenge their perceptions, and push past their limits. We offer a “second chance at rehab” to push our participants past surviving after a spinal cord injury, and truly back to thriving.

Empower also offers outreach day programs throughout New England, which include our Knobby Tire Ride and Roll in Carlisle, MA and our Wheelchair Skills Clinics held throughout the year. The Knobby Tire Ride and Roll is one of our main fundraisers, which offers individuals of all abilities the opportunity to get out on mountain bike trails. The event raises awareness for adaptive sports, and brings together the community of cyclists of all abilities to raise funds for a common cause. Empower’s Wheelchair Skills Clinics have taught over 200 individuals advanced wheelchair skills. All too often, individuals are prescribed a wheelchair, but might not have the proper training to effectively use the equipment to get around obstacles in the community. Our Wheelchair Skills Clinics teach students, therapists and wheelchair-users the basics of wheelchair set-up, wheelies, curb negotiation, going up and down stairs, and more. The course empowers individuals to be able to conquer the challenges that come up during everyday wheelchair-use in the community.

Our next upcoming event is the Empower Spinal Cord Injury Gala. Our gala is our biggest fundraiser, and is an opportunity to come together as a community and celebrate each other, our accomplishments, and the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity. It will be on November 11, 2017 in Providence, RI.

Personally, I am proud that I have been able to pass on my passion for working with individuals with spinal cord injuries to so many students and therapists that are a part of the Empower family. As a company, I am most proud of our Empower magic- the energy that we create as a group each year that pulses through the veins of our summer programs and creates such an amazing and positive experience for everyone involved. As a program, each participant that comes through the doors holds a special place in my heart, but this past summer, one of the participants from our first 2 years as a program whose goals at our summer program were to return to sport and go to college just recently graduated from University of New Hampshire and competes nationally on a Quad Rugby team in New Hampshire. So proud of his accomplishments and so happy to see him meet his goals, and so grateful to have been a part of his journey of recovery.

What were you like growing up?
As the youngest of 4 with 3 older brothers, let’s just say I didn’t spend much time playing with dolls. I spent most of my childhood outdoors, playing sports (soccer particularly), and just being in nature. I have always been a passionate person, and I am an idealist at heart, which is what has been the driving force behind why I chose to pursue starting up Empower- I found my passion, I saw a need, I found the right people to balance my strengths and weaknesses, and I realized that we could change lives. I am so happy to have found Jess and Liz, the other two co-founders of Empower. As an idealist, it is fantastic to have found Jess (the realist), and Liz (the pragmatist). We balance each other out in a really amazing way, and I can’t imagine making it as far as I have without both of them by my side.

I have brought my love of sports with me into my adulthood. My favorite things to do are ride my bike around Somerville, ride in the woods on my mountain bike at Landlocked Forest or The Fells, and head up north to hike or snowboard in Vermont, I also like to spend my time volunteering for other organizations that provide adaptive sports experiences, particularly adaptive skiing, snowboarding, cycling, surfing and paddling. I am a certified Adaptive Snowboard Instructor, and just recently took the Adaptive Paddling Workshop to learn more techniques on adaptive kayaking. I love to learn, I love sports, and I love helping others!


  • Summer Program fee for Participants for the 2-week Program : $2750
  • Cost that Empower raises per participant to host the program : $4000

Contact Info:

Image Credit:

Leo Castro and Stephanie Espino

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