2017 People of the Year: Yannick Benjamin & Alex Elegudin

By |2018-01-22T15:43:58+00:00January 2nd, 2018|
Contact The Editor

Photo by Anabella Veress

.
Alex Elegudin and Yannick Benjamin launched Wheeling Forward in 2011, eight years after sharing a room in rehab at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Since then, the nonprofit has grown into an invaluable resource for the thousands of New Yorkers with SCI. It has provided over 350 wheelchairs, transitioned approximately 75 people out of nursing homes, given away college scholarships, helped people find their first post-injury jobs, hosted dozens of adaptive sporting events around the city, and organized urban outings to cultural and sporting events. In recognition of their contributions to the disability community through Wheeling Forward, we are proud to honor Elegudin and Benjamin as our 2017 NEW MOBILITY People of the Year.

Elegudin leads a support group, and Benjamin leads a spin class, while other members of Axis box, lift weights, use standing frames or take cooking classes.

Elegudin leads a support group, and Benjamin leads a spin class, while other members of Axis box, lift weights, use standing frames or take cooking classes.

In an unremarkable brick building just a few blocks from Central Park, two young women prepare for a boxing lesson. They’ve come as they are, in street clothes and power chairs, with no special gear except the padded gloves their trainer slips onto their uncooperative hands. Neither has a ton of upper body function, but both are ready to exhaust everything they do have.

“Right, left, right, body, body,” the trainer yells out over a din of bass-heavy music and the voices of the 40 or so people that currently fill the main room of the East Harlem location of the Axis Project. One lady shadow boxes while the other throws shots — hooks, jabs, and uppercuts — then bobs down, bending side to side as her trainer passes the mitts over her head in swooping arcs.

This ever-evolving, sometimes halting dance is but one small scene of activity within the large, fluorescent-lit space. On the street-side of the room, another trainer leads a small group of wheelchair users in a modified spin class. They alternate arm ergometer intervals with lightweight dumbbell exercises, and are wearing themselves out rather quickly. To their left, two guys bullshit and laugh as they grab steaming plates of rice and chicken for dinner. Across the room, a man lies on an elevated mat as a trainer manipulates his legs and hips, slowly lengthening muscles and tendons tight from daily sitting. Next to him, a guy and a girl look down on the room from a pair of standing frames, while in front of them a man in a power chair and his caregiver get him set up to do some single arm pull downs on a cable machine.  There’s so much going on in here that it can take a while to process it all, but for all the activity, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Axis Project is just one of the many programs of Wheeling Forward, a New York City nonprofit founded by our 2017 People of the Year, Alex Elegudin and Yannick Benjamin. Like the broader organization and its founders, the Axis Project can be hard to sum up because it kind of does everything.

It is a fitness center for people with disabilities that offers activities from spin classes to yoga, Pilates, boxing lessons, spinal mobility classes and weight lifting. It also offers acupuncture and massage services. The posted schedule features art therapy on Friday and a wheelchair cleaning and maintenance service on Monday. The center offers a regular “Cooking for Quads” class and a recent outing had lead physical therapist Lawrence Harding helping members learn to navigate the byzantine and only intermittently accessible NYC subway system. Through all of this, the project ends up serving as a de facto social club for its members.

Being a member of the Axis Project, along with everything that entails, is covered by New York’s Medicaid. If you don’t have insurance, they’ll work with you, and probably figure out how to get you covered in the process. Adaptive fitness and providing assistance to climb the bureaucratic hurdles necessary to obtain needed services might seem like two very different things, and they are. But they’re both well within the purview of Wheeling Forward. Everything it does is driven by a mission as simple as it is comprehensive: helping people with disabilities in New York City to live as they so choose.

Support Makes the Difference

Elegudin and Benjamin first met in 2003 as roommates in the rehab unit of Mount Sinai Hospital, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Elegudin had C6 quadriplegia the result of a car accident. Benjamin had T6 paraplegia, also the result of a car accident. Benjamin was a sommelier, who, at 25, had already been working at some of the finest restaurants in New York. Elegudin was a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh studying biomedical engineering. They bonded quickly since they were both young people from immigrant families — Elegudin moved from Russia when he was 4, and Benjamin’s parents both immigrated from France just before he was born.

.
“It’s a relationship that grew, it wasn’t like we [immediately] became the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck of the non-profit world,” Benjamin says. “I think most of all we had the same background. Both from immigrant backgrounds, both growing up in New York. I think we’re both extremely loyal people, the cultural background was very similar, I think maybe the passion, the drive, the want to be better, on an individual basis, but also to see other people grow and be better, is something we share.”

Coming out of rehab, both Elegudin and Benjamin set themselves to reframe the lives they’d been constructing prior to their injuries. Practical by nature, Elegudin shifted his focus from biomedical engineering to law. “I understood that manual labor was going to be tough now, but I could still speak pretty well, and had won a lot of arguments with friends, and girlfriends,” he says with a smile. He attended law school at Hofstra University and found work as a practicing attorney.

Benjamin’s goal remained the same. He loved working on the restaurant floor as a sommelier, and he didn’t want to give that up just because he had to use a wheelchair. After seeing a picture of a waitress using a lap tray to serve food from her wheelchair, he designed a custom tray that allowed him to hold wine glasses, bottle, and decanter while wheeling — a must to continue working as a sommelier. He was hired as a sommelier at Le Du’s, a wine shop that is now recognized as New York City’s best.

Elegudin represents Axis and Wheeling Forward at the 2015 Disability Pride Parade.

Elegudin represents Axis and Wheeling Forward at the 2015 Disability Pride Parade.

.
Both Elegudin and Benjamin realized that their personal stories were too often the exception and not the rule for people with disabilities. They were young, smart, motivated, hard-working and resilient, all of which are extremely helpful when trying to rebuild a life after paralysis. But neither will point to those qualities, or any other personal attribute, as reasons they’ve been able to succeed. Instead, they cite their support systems — family, friends, and mentors — as the key factor in why they have been able to navigate a world not set up for those with disabilities.

Perhaps their most important mentor was George Gallego, a leader in the New York City SCI community and the founder of Wheels of Progress, a nonprofit focused on creating accessible housing solutions. Gallego provided both an example of someone who’d been able to build a life after paralysis, and a wealth of practical knowledge on how to do so. The three would become close friends, and eventual partners in the Axis Project.

Wheeling Forward’s Axis Project has become a de facto social club, and Halloween is often a highlight for members like José Hernadez, left, and Arianny Ramirez, center.

Wheeling Forward’s Axis Project has become a de facto social club, and Halloween is often a highlight for members like José Hernadez, left, and Arianny Ramirez, center.

For those who have a physical disability, the obstacles to success can be pervasive. Accessible housing requires money. Work requires education and training. Education requires money, or the know-how to obtain aid. Just getting around and living with independence requires the proper medical equipment, which requires money, insurance, and often both. Staying active requires equipment and know-how.  If you don’t have a support system, figuring all these things out on your own can be next to impossible.

Elegudin and Benjamin had everything going for them, and still it was incredibly tough. They wanted to build a support system for all those who weren’t so lucky.

Figuring it Out

In 2010, Elegudin was mentoring a young man in a nursing home whose insurance wouldn’t buy him a power chair, a situation that is all too commonplace. If the man was going to transition out of the nursing home into independent housing, he would need a wheelchair. So, Elegudin got on eBay, found a used wheelchair and drove to Delaware to get it.

“The thing that took me a while to realize about advocacy is that you don’t need any special training to start helping people.” – Alex Elegudin

“The thing that took me a while to realize about advocacy is that you don’t need any special training to start helping people.” – Alex Elegudin

It was a simple thing — getting a wheelchair for someone who needed it — that made a big difference in that man’s life. But when Elegudin approached established nonprofits about doing this, they balked. Too much liability. Sorry, not something we can do.

Elegudin says, “The thing that took me a while to realize about advocacy is that you don’t need any special training to start helping people.” There’s no playbook for most of the stuff they do. Rather, “advocacy is about screaming loud enough for people to hear.”

Around this time, Benjamin tried to put together a fundraiser to benefit a program that Elegudin was involved with. It was envisioned as a way of connecting New York’s wine community to its disability community, but the idea quickly fell apart because of planning disagreements, and Benjamin was soured by the experience.

“I wanted to be able to support organizations I believed in,” he says. But he didn’t know anyone doing the kind of things he wanted to support.

Except Elegudin.

“Don’t tell someone no, just because you don’t know how to do something. Figure it out!” says Benjamin.

“Don’t tell someone no, just because you don’t know how to do something. Figure it out!” says Benjamin.

In 2011, Elegudin and Benjamin started their own organization, Wheeling Forward. They had no long-term plan. No list of action items, or detailed agenda. What they did have was a desire to aggressively help people and a weariness of hearing no. “What do you mean, no?” Benjamin asks. “Don’t tell someone no, just because you don’t know how to do something. Figure it out!”

Benjamin and Elegudin held their first fundraiser for Wheeling Forward in 2012 and immediately churned that money into their wheelchair giving and scholarship programs. Then they partnered with Gallego in 2014 to start the Axis Project. Together, they’ve expanded from a cramped corner of a single room to two large spaces — the East Harlem location, and a brand-new gym space in Brooklyn, all while expanding the rest of Wheeling Forward’s litany of advocacy, support, giving, and recreation efforts.

A large part of their success is a clear delineation of Elegudin and Benjamin’s roles. “Our end game is the same, but how we go about it is different,” Benjamin says. “He’s all about the programming aspects of it, he likes to be the general when it comes to that, and I’m more about getting the word out there, building relationships, networking, raising the money, and all that kind of stuff.”

Both are exceedingly talented at what they do, and neither feels the need to intrude on the other’s work, something Benjamin puts down to their long relationship. “I think there’s this lack of insecurity with each other — there’s never like ‘why did you do that without me, or why didn’t you let me know.’ Really, none of that happens.”

The Money Man and The Mayor

Benjamin is a man with an ingrained sense of service, and a pervasive guilt that he is not doing enough, or perhaps more accurately, that he could be doing more. “I’m selfish with my time,” he says. Yet when pushed, will admit to regularly putting in 10-12 hour days between his night job at the University Club and his work with Wheeling Forward. At first, this seems an odd attitude for someone who does so much — who co-founded and serves as Wheeling Forward’s fundraising and marketing head, while being recognized as one of the best sommeliers in the country. In fact, who is the first and only sommelier to use a wheelchair. Or who will teach spin classes at the Axis Project, serve as its motivator in chief, and cajole members into making signs for and attending protests and advocacy events across the city.

Benjamin is passionate about many things, yet reflecting on his accomplishments is not one of them. But when the subject turns to any number of issues affecting the disability community, his hands chop the air as his voice rises and falls in well-reasoned, expletive-punctuated sentences. Take the New York City Marathon’s policy to restrict push wheelchair entrants to racing chairs, which Benjamin found out about when he signed up to do the race this year as part of a fundraiser for Wheeling Forward. “It’s hard enough for someone in a wheelchair to be able to train to push a marathon,” he argues. “Now you’re going to tell them they’re required to have a piece of equipment that costs thousands of dollars just to do it? That’s not fucking inclusive.” Benjamin pushed the marathon in his everyday chair. “I was dreaming that some official would stop me and I could make a scene,” he says.

This is clearly a man who understands the proper ingredients for, and power of, a good news story. Unfortunately, he was allowed to push unmolested, and finished the race in his everyday chair.

Another thing Benjamin is passionate about is raising money. “‘No money, no programs’ is something I tell Alex all the time,” he says. He clearly has a gift for fundraising, often securing in a single event the kind of money that many nonprofits would be thrilled to raise in a year [see “Wine on Wheels” below]. The funds Benjamin brings in, along with the exceptional work ethic and attention to detail that Elegudin brings to the running of their programs, and the passion that both of them infuse into the whole operation has fueled Wheeling Forward’s rapid expansion.

George Gallego, right, served as a key mentor for Elegudin and Benjamin. Known for his work in getting people out of nursing homes, Gallego is also a partner in the Axis Project.

George Gallego, right, served as a key mentor for Elegudin and Benjamin. Known for his work in getting people out of nursing homes, Gallego is also a partner in the Axis Project.

At the Axis Project Elegudin acts a bit like a small-town mayor. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. There are always a thousand things to be attended to — whether it’s discussing building operations with the other tenants of the space, programming needs with staff, or employment opportunities with members — and there is never a better time than the present.

The political metaphor only goes so far though, as Elegudin isn’t fond of sugar coating things to keep people happy and he’s far more talented than most politicians at actually getting things done. He’s the archetypal New Yorker in these respects: He tells it like it is, and if the truth is unpleasant, deal with it; and it’s quite possible that he may never sleep. “I’ve always been a man in a rush,” says Elegudin.

His day job is with the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, where he is the accessibility program manager, tasked with increasing the accessibility of New York’s enormous Taxi fleet. He also works what amounts to at least a full-time job managing the operations of Wheeling Forward, while being regularly involved with other disability-advocacy work whenever and wherever it pops up. It’s a hectic life, but one that Elegudin consciously chose after he started working as a lawyer. “I worked at a few firms, but after a while I realized there were thousands of other attorneys in New York City who could do the legal work I was doing, he says. “That wasn’t the case with disability advocacy.”

Elegudin and Benjamin believe in the power of coalitions, so Wheeling Forward partners with United Spinal’s NYC Chapter, George Gallego’s Wheels of Progress, which focuses on accessible housing issues, and Independence Care Systems, a nonprofit that helps coordinate in-home care services, among others. Depending on what they’re trying to get done for a given client, Wheeling Forward is willing to collaborate with anyone who does good work.

As a board member for United Spinal Association’s New York City chapter, Debra Poli knows she can rely on Elegudin and Benjamin. “Frequently we [the NYC Chapter] have requests for help that we’re not equipped to handle,” she says. “But if I send Alex and Yannick an email that ‘this and this is happening, can you do anything?’ they’re on it in a minute.”

Some of that stems from Benjamin’s hospitality background. “Hospitality doesn’t only apply in a restaurant. It’s a 24 hours a day, seven days a week thing,” Benjamin says. “I hope that each member [of the organization] is treated with the best hospitality possible. Our job isn’t to say no, it’s to provide solutions.”

“They’re very kind, likeable guys. There’s nothing that they wouldn’t do for other people,” says Poli. “They have big hearts, and that comes through with everything they do. So when they put out a request for help, or they say, ‘gee, this is something we need to work on together,’ people rally around them. They’re really, truly, leaders in the community.”

Talent Attracts Talent

Lawrence Harding was Elegudin and Benjamin’s physical therapist at Mount Sinai, before joining them to work at the Axis Project. He says they helped provide him the answer to a fundamental question he had when he was working in the hospital — what happens to people when they leave rehab? “Community integration was a big buzz word in the rehab world,” he says. “But here, they’re actually providing it.”

The outings led by Wheeling Forward translate into true community integration — and a lot of fun.

The outings led by Wheeling Forward translate into true community integration — and a lot of fun.

.
A therapist, professor and dancer, Harding is but one example of the kind of motivated, multi-talented people that Wheeling Forward attracts as employees, volunteers and members. There’s Manny, a former investment banker who sustained a C6 spinal cord injury, and now manages operations at the Axis Project. There’s José, the boxing trainer, who also just inked his first book deal — an educational text about immigration for sixth graders. There’s Arianny, who started as a member of the Axis Project and grew so involved that they brought her on as staff at Wheeling Forward. The total paid staff now numbers 15, about half of whom use wheelchairs. Over the course of the year, between regular programs, special events and fundraising activities they’ll utilize over 400 volunteers.

The addition of so many dedicated, talented staff members has allowed Wheeling Forward to dramatically expand the scope and quality of the services that they provide. If anyone gets exhausted with the pace and the sheer amount of work that’s required to make Wheeling Forward run, they don’t show it.

Fostering Community

On any given night, the Axis Project is illustrative of what is found when those with disabilities are viewed as individuals with talents, wants, and goals, rather than as patients in need of a cure, or numbers in a system. Here, says Poli, “No one’s giving them the poor little patient routine. They’re treated like grown-ups who are expected to have goals and they’re encouraged to be well, to take care of themselves, to work out, to get active, to be involved in the community.”

At 9 p.m. on a Friday in November, the Axis Project has been buzzing with activity for hours. The classes, workouts and sign-making for a healthcare protest at Trump Tower have all wound down. Elegudin, just back from a side trip across town to speak at a disability symposium, is in a back room meeting with Manny about next week’s activities. Benjamin and Lawrence sit at one edge of the room, beverages in hand, listening as a Karaoke session winds down the day. Eli, a natural linguist with a surprisingly velvety voice, croons “Le Café des Trois Colombes” in impeccable French. “On n’avait rien, mais on avait toute la vie …”We had nothing, but we had our whole life.

Stephan, an engineering student, whom Wheeling Forward has helped with scholarships and assistance in finding affordable, accessible housing, sips a drink just to Lawrence’s right as Eli sings. Stephan and Eli, both quads, have partnered to start a business called Level the Curve that designs, manufactures and sells adaptive products. Their first product is a sleek, 3-D printed eating tool that allows those with limited dexterity to use multiple utensils independently.

For years, Benjamin and Elegudin have brought a lot of heart to the great independent living endeavor, and their New York community knows it.

For years, Benjamin and Elegudin have brought a lot of heart to the great independent living endeavor, and their New York community knows it.

The song ends. Benjamin, who is fluent in French, is impressed with Eli’s elocution. “Eli, that was great,” he marvels as Eli rolls up after singing. “Man, we gotta hang out.”

Donohue, a double amputee with a SCI who sometimes helps José with his boxing lessons, wheels over and chats Benjamin up about getting wine for an adaptive fashion show that he’s helping another member host. The wine, Benjamin assures him, isn’t a problem.

José, the boxing trainer, sits on a couch with his feet up, finally relaxing for a moment. This scene is exactly why he works with the Axis Project. Earlier in the week he’d mentioned that a lot of people talk about community, but it can be hard to find these days. People lost in their own worlds, as they are. But he works here because he genuinely enjoys coming, hanging out with people that are motivated to work, to get fit, to help each other move forward with their lives.

Elegudin and Benjamin set out to create a support system for those who didn’t have one. Listening to karaoke in East Harlem on a Friday night, it’s apparent they’ve gone a step further and helped foster a community— a group that makes each other, and their whole city, stronger.

*****

Wine on Wheels

With the full support of New York’s wine community behind them, Benjamin and Elegudin raised $300,000 for Wheeling Forward this year.

With the full support of New York’s wine community behind them, Benjamin and Elegudin raised $300,000 for Wheeling Forward this year.

.
Fundraising events for Wheeling Forward are spread throughout the year, including many that are connected to the wine world. Its signature event, “Wine on Wheels,” started as a single afternoon wine auction and tasting that has transformed into a major event for New York’s wine community. It now features a week of tastings spread across the city leading up to the big event, in which New York City’s top sommeliers, restaurants, and wine importers converge with Wheeling Forward to offer some of the best wine and spirits the world has to offer. It’s high profile enough that Forbes.com led off a 2015 article with this: “It’s May again — which, for New York’s wine community, means only one thing: Wine on Wheels.”

That level of mainstream attention helped Wine on Wheels bring in $125,000 for the organization last year. A full year’s worth of wine events bought in $300,000 for Wheeling Forward in 2017. The relationship with the wine world has been so successful that Benjamin hopes to expand Wine on Wheels to other cities, allowing nonprofits to engage the support of their local wine communities. Plans are currently in the works for a Houston event.

*****

David Simond’s Story

If there was a genesis point for everything that Wheeling Forward does, it was in what Alex Elegudin calls, “one of the most unjust places in New York City.” Goldwater Memorial Hospital was a chronic care facility for those with physical disabilities, one of New York’s “last remaining stains of mass institutionalization,” as Elegudin puts it. It was built on Roosevelt Island, separated from Manhattan by a narrow stretch of the East River, constructed on the remains of a prison, near the now-shuttered doors of what was once known as the New York City Lunatic Asylum.

In 2003, as Elegudin worked through the rehab unit of Mount Sinai hospital, Goldwater was still operating. Once Benjamin left, Elegudin’s new roommate was a 17-year-old named David Simond who had a high-level cervical injury. Simond was depressed. He had limited function, came from poverty, and had no support system, family, friends, or otherwise. He’d lived in an upper floor apartment and his family moving to an accessible apartment simply wasn’t going to happen. The little hope he had for some sort of post-injury life worth living was given to him by rehab therapists and staff.

A few weeks after Elegudin was discharged from Mount Sinai, he heard that Simond had been discharged as well. Instead of going back to live with family, as Elegudin had, Simond was sent to Goldwater. Getting discharged to a nursing home or long term care facility was, and still is, common for anyone who doesn’t have a place to go after rehab.

When you go to a nursing home, “Everything disappears,” Elegudin says. “They’re housed there like it’s prison. Can’t go out when they want, can’t do what they want. Routinely they don’t even get an hour a day outside like you would in prison.”

The transition from rehab to a nursing home can break people. “You go from a place where everybody is working to get better to one where everybody is dying,” Elegudin says.

Elegudin started going to visit because Simond had no one else. Elegudin wanted to do something to help him but had no idea what. He’d only recently left rehab and was still trying to figure out his way about his new world. So he’d just go there and watch TV with Simond, give him some company, somebody who thought of him as a person instead of a number. Then one day, he went and Simond wasn’t in his room.

The staff told him that Simond had died, possibly suffocating in his sleep. In the nursing home, Simond still had an open trach, which requires care and monitoring. Fifteen years later, there is still anger in his voice as Elegudin tells the story. “Only God really knows what happened to David,” he says. “But I know for sure this wouldn’t have happened had he not been at this place.”

Whatever did happen, Simond was gone. Elegudin was traumatized by the experience, and it left him with a terrible feeling of injustice — that something like that should never happen. Elegudin still had no idea how or what he could do, but he knew that he wanted to help make sure that nobody else got lost and died at night without the world ever knowing.

Today, Wheeling Forward gives out one award every year: the David Simond Award. Goldwater closed in 2013, but there are far too many young people who still get shipped to nursing homes across the city. Giving people a chance at a life free from institutionalization is at the core of Wheeling Forward’s passion, fueling what they do.