In his lifetime, actor Christopher Reeve was best known for his role as “Superman” on the silver screen. But he also was a real-life superhero to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, an organization he helped found after a horseback-riding accident left him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The organization is dedicated to curing spinal cord injury by funding research and to improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis.
Reeve was a maverick leader of the foundation for 10 years, projecting its work into almost every corner of the world. He was its face and its brand, its chief fundraiser, a tireless lobbyist and chairman of the board. He also served as vice chairman of the National Organization on Disability, where he worked on quality-of-life issues for the disabled and helped pass the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999, which allows people with disabilities to return to work and still receive disability benefits. He served on the boards of directors of World T.E.A.M. Sports, a group that organizes and sponsors sporting events for athletes with and without disabilities; TechHealth, a company that assists in the relationship between patients and their insurance companies; and LIFE (Leaders in Furthering Education), a charitable organization that supports education and opportunities for underserved populations.
But Reeve’s work to advance spinal cord research wasn’t just personally motivated. The foundation represents years of perseverance and hope by many in the face of tragedy, its roots laid long before Reeve’s accident and inspired by another, less well-known one.
The story starts in 1982, when Henry Stifel, a teenager from New Jersey, was in a car accident that left him with quadriplegia. Henry’s family rallied friends, neighbors, scientists and local political leaders to form the Stifel Paralysis Research Foundation to raise money for spinal cord research. A few years later, in an effort to maximize resources, that foundation merged with the American Paralysis Association, which also had been formed by spinal cord-injured individuals and their families, and was brought under the APA moniker.