Chapter Check-In

This artist’s rendering shows a proposed ramp to make the governor’s mansion more accessible. Photo Courtesy of Virginia Department of General Services.

This artist’s rendering shows a proposed ramp to make the governor’s mansion more accessible. Photo Courtesy of Virginia Department of General Services.

As United Spinal’s director of chapter relations, Nick LiBassi is always looking for ways to connect the organization with new and established SCI/D groups around the country and expand the United Spinal network. Sometimes that role goes beyond simply connecting with existing groups and helping interested parties found new chapters. So when LiBassi kept hearing about the need for some sort of SCI/D group in Virginia, he set the wheels in motion for the new Virginia chapter of United Spinal.

“After countless conversations with people from Virginia, it became clear to me that there was a need for some sort of organization to support people there with SCI/D,” says LiBassi. “I started thinking about people I know in the area who might be interested and capable of starting a chapter and taking on that responsibility. That’s when I came up with Sharon.”

LiBassi is referring to Sharon Drennan, a United Spinal member who lives in Richmond. Drennan got involved with a different chapter when her son was paralyzed after surgery to remove a mass on his back six years ago. Drennan had a background in nonprofits and happened to be job hunting. “It felt like the universe was saying go do this,” she recalls. “But, I didn’t want to take that leap of faith without knowing I was going to have some organizational support behind me.”

To that end, she and some local nurses gathered a group of local stakeholders — people with SCI/D, nurses, therapists, community activists — and hashed out the idea of starting a chapter. There had been a chapter in the area but it closed down in 2013. “There was a tremendous amount of positive response,” says Drennan. “It was so exciting. Everybody signed up for something. It was clear that the community needed this and was going to get behind it.”

Sharon Drennan helped start the Virginia chapter after her son Robert became paralyzed.

Sharon Drennan helped start the Virginia chapter after her son Robert became paralyzed.

All of this happened in just a little over a month in the fall of 2015, and the frenetic pace didn’t slow down. Since that initial meeting in early October, the chapter has obtained its 501(c)3 status, solidified its board, settled into office space in a building owned by Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, the local trauma and rehab center, and presented all around the state, looking to sign up members. “We’ve done a lot in a short time,” says Drennan.

That’s not even including a trip to the governor’s mansion to consult on the design of a new accessible entrance. The governor was spurred to action after a visit from a group of wounded warriors highlighted the historical mansion’s inaccessibility. “In order for these disabled veterans to have access to the mansion, they had to go around, through the back door, through a utility room and into an elevator … it wasn’t received very well,” she says.

The chapter held its first monthly meeting in November and is excited about launching its first program — a peer mentoring/family support program. United Spinal’s Lindsey Elliott will host a training and certification for the chapter in January, and Drennan envisions the program growing rapidly from there.

Looking back on the whirlwind of the last few months, Drennan is proud of what the group has accomplished and how the process of forming the chapter worked. “There was a void, we stepped up to fill it and it’s happening quickly,” she says. “What’s inspiring to me is that people spoke up. Nurses and therapists said to Nick, we need this in Virginia and we don’t have it. The system and the process worked. The national organization got word from a community that was in need, Nick reached out and it came together.”

Spotlight: Richmond, VA.

by Richard Bagby

Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of

My Take
Historic cities tend to be dismissed by people with mobility issues, given the conflict between accessibility and antiquity; however, RVA has found ways to marry the two rather eloquently — for the most part. As a lifelong resident and a wheelchair user for the last seven years, I can’t say Richmond is the quintessential model for accessibility. But it is the capital of Southern hospitality, which translates to good-hearted accommodations — if an issue is brought to light, it is solved reasonably. People here care. They care about their history, their eclectic, nationally recognized food scene, entertainment, and they don’t want anyone to be excluded from enjoying all of it, including those with mobility impairments. This consideration is evidenced in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s office recently extending an invitation to representatives of the United Spinal Association of Virginia to privately tour the governor’s mansion and discuss viable ways to make the accessible property even more welcoming to wheelchair users.

Skinny on the City
Richmond, Va., affectionately known by its residents as “RVA,” is a large town that covers the spectrum from historic to modern within its cozy boundaries. Steeped in a rich history highlighted by Revolutionary landmarks, numerous Civil War-era points of interest, and much more, Richmond has embraced its past while looking forward.

Places to Go
While Richmond is an older city with accessibility challenges, the downtown area has been revitalized and includes newer buildings such as the Greater Richmond Convention Center and a performing arts center, Richmond CenterStage. The city is also known for its many restaurants and growing number of craft breweries. But Virginia’s accessible variety extends far beyond its capital city. A scenic 90-minute drive west to Shenandoah National Park lands you on Skyline Drive and some of the most majestic mountain scenery on the East Coast. In the winter months, Wintergreen Resort offers many activities for wheelchair users, including adaptive skiing. In the summer months, Virginia Beach boasts a three-mile concrete boardwalk, accessible deep sea fishing adventures, and Grommet Island Park, a one-of-a-kind fully accessible on-beach park. From May through October, Grommet Island Park Beach offers 15,000 square feet packed with an accessible playground and tons of fun, accessible activities for kids with all types of disabilities. Beach wheelchairs are also available for daily use.

Getting Around
Transportation in and around Richmond, and subsequently the state, is easy if you have a vehicle you can drive. Accessible parking is on par with most cities, if not more abundant, further eased by free metered parking with handicap plates or a placard. The state also offers free E-Z Pass transponders for those who may have difficulty with tolls. When public transportation is needed, Richmond operates the Greater Richmond Transit Company, a fully accessible bus system. The GRTC also offers door-to-door service for people with mobility impairments through a program called CARE Van, which unfortunately has come under heavy fire for poor scheduling and lack of reliability.

Available Health Care
Virginia Commonwealth University Health System provides the Richmond area with a one stop system for diagnosing and treating spinal cord injuries and neurological diseases. From the moment of injury to inpatient rehabilitation, outpatient rehab, and research, VCUHS does a god job of helping people with SCI/D attain their highest potential level of independence and then maintain it. The physical medicine and rehabilitation department is a well-established award-winning program led by United Spinal Association of Virginia board member, Dr. William McKinley.

Must See. Must Do
Historical sites and landmarks abound in Richmond. Fully accessible, historic St. John’s Church, the site of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, has been beautifully preserved. Tours cost $8 for adults, and group rates are available. For a more low-key endeavor, you can cruise Monument Avenue and the beautiful sculptures of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as other Richmond notables, like tennis pioneer Arthur Ashe and 19th Century oceanographer, Matthew Fontaine Maury. The street was named one of the 10 Great Streets in America by the American Planning Association in 2007 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.