Jordan Thomas '11 is one of those rare spirits that never sees a problem, only challenges.
It's two weeks before he begins his junior year of high school. His parents Vick and Liz, two busy physicians from Chattanooga, Tenn., head for the Florida Keys with their youngest son.
The plan is a relaxing family vacation.
No patients. No books. No classrooms.
Just a week of scuba diving and deep-sea spear fishing.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005, is an overcast day. The winds peak at around 12 m.p.h., only a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina will sail through the Florida coast, gaining momentum and striking New Orleans.
It happens. What begins as a family retreat turns into a horrific event due to circumstances beyond their control. Five miles offshore, eager to swim, Jordan Thomas '11 jumps into the water. He is pushed behind the boat by a wave. His legs get caught in the propellers. When he emerges, he looks around him and all he can see is blood. Vick Thomas jumps into the water and pulls his son into the boat.
"I remember looking into my dad's eyes and thinking I was going to die," Thomas recalls.
Within half an hour, he is airlifted to Ryder Trauma Center in Miami, where he undergoes three surgeries. Both of his legs are amputated from the calf down. He's only 15 years old.
"When people react to my accident, they immediately feel sorry for me, but, if anything, it has enriched my life - it hasn't distracted from it at all," says Thomas, an international business and Spanish major. "I was drafted into the circumstances - maybe for a reason, maybe not - and I tried to make the best of it."
This is the attitude that makes it happen. What begins as a horrific event turns into an epic project, an inspirational act that impacts lives beyond anything expected.
John Kalouse, a doctor at the children's trauma unit at RTC, where Thomas will recover, is a colleague of Vick and Liz's from the University of Florida College of Medicine. He shows Thomas around the hospital after his surgery and introduces him to several other children recovering from injuries.
One of them is a young boy, a burn victim, whose parents abandoned him because they couldn't afford the medical bills. The boy waits to be placed in a foster home. "I felt blessed and extremely sad when I met him," recalls Thomas. "My family was there to support me through this whole process. That little guy was so brave and he was going through this all by himself."
Lying in the hospital bed, less than a week after his final surgery, Thomas can't get this boy and the possibility of others out of his mind. He can't imagine kids unable to achieve their dreams because they don't have the money to continue their recovery. A plan needed to be devised. It needed to be put in action.
He insists that his own family donate to help these kids. They always made a nonprofit donation during the holidays - it could come earlier this year. No, wait - the need is much larger. They should raise money among their network of friends in Chattanooga. By the end of the evening, Thomas is insisting they start a nonprofit organization. Within a week after his final surgery, his family helps him file the appropriate government paperwork. A month after the accident, the Jordan Thomas Foundation is established.
Great ideas catch on quickly. And when the football coach of the Miami Hurricanes, Larry Coker, hears about Thomas' accident and his effort to found a miraculous organization, he visits Thomas in the hospital. He signs an autograph, "Jordan, keep up the good work. Press on."
Finding encouragement in Coker's words, Thomas' family and friends make bracelets, hats and T-shirts with the words "press on JT." They give them to their family and friends and tell them to spread his story. The word gets out around Tennessee and Florida. The foundation launches a website, and the message spreads farther.
By 2006, the foundation takes on its first full-time beneficiary, 8-year-old Alaina, one of eight children in a Mennonite family. When Alaina was 2 years old, both of her legs were severed by a bush hog in a farming accident. Alaina's parents sold their home and moved in with another family of equal size to pay for her first pair of legs.
The average pair of prosthetic legs costs around $32,000. Most insurance plans will only cover one pair of legs, if anything. When children outgrow one pair of legs, they will need several more before turning 18. Unable to afford replacement prostheses when she outgrew them, her parents were referred by Alaina's doctor to the Jordan Thomas Foundation for help.
The Jordan Thomas Foundation covered all of Alaina's medical expenses and a lifetime of prostheses. In 2007, they provided the same care for 6-year-old Noah, who lost his right leg due to a surgery complication. Most recently, they've helped 11-year-old Daniel, who lost his right arm in a motorcycle accident.
The Jordan Thomas Foundation has currently raised more than $400,000 for children whose families cannot afford prosthetic limbs.
Let's rewind to before the foundation raises a cent. Just before Thomas even gets this idea. But after his accident. Where is the part when he feels sorry for himself? Where is the part when he looks down where his calves and feet should be, and says, "You know what, I have the right to take pity on myself"?
If you come across the junior one day as he strolls around campus, ask him how he was able to persevere when others would have given up. To him, the answer is simple: "I think if most people were in my situation, they would have done the same thing if they could."
This year, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, a coalition of philanthropists from all over the world, honored Thomas with the 2009 AFP Award for Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy. And this spring, Courage Center, a nonprofit rehabilitation program started in 1928, announced that Thomas had been nominated for the National Courage Award, an annual honor that's been handed out since 1980 to individuals who have made significant contributions to the disabled community. When he was honored in May, alongside Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox, the association decided that, of all this year's nominees, Thomas deserves it the most.
On August 15 at a ceremony in Minneapolis, Thomas will accept the award (it has previously been handed to Janet Reno and Christopher Reeve) in front of an audience of 10,000 and coverage from international media.
"There's so much to come out of it for the foundation," he says, emphasizing the word so in his Tennessee accent. You can't help but notice the excitement in his voice. Not for the prestige and the glory of it, but how it will all go back to helping someone else.
What is courage? It's something that everyone knows the importance of, but so few take the initiative of exercising. And, as Jordan Thomas knows, courage is having the spirit to face challenges, the strength to take action and the dedication to press on. College of Charleston
Check out the Jordan Thomas Foundation and learn more about Thomas' work at jordanthomasfoundation.org.
by Melanie Caduhada '09