- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) - He ended up in a wheelchair because he broke his neck while trying to help a child retrieve a kite lost in the ocean. Now, friends are raising money to buy a special wheelchair to help him retrieve another outdoor joy he lost to paralysis.

O’Ree Crittenden, 43, a quadriplegic for 15 years, will go on a hike again if fellow Shaw High School alumni Lee Griffith and Chad Pepper reach their goal. They want to collect $15,000 for a Black Diamond TrailRider and other equipment Crittenden would need to participate in the 78.6-mile trek that comprises the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.

Crittenden is considered a high-functioning quadriplegic, meaning he has partial use of his arms and hands. He lives alone, but a caregiver through Medicaid helps him at home in the mornings and evenings five days per week. Since he was paralyzed, he has kayaked, water skied, jet skied, rode on an ATV and played on a nationally ranked wheelchair rugby team, but hiking has been an elusive wish.

Before his accident, Crittenden spent as much time as he could in nature. He hiked and biked. He canoed and kayaked. Each summer, he joined friends on camping trips along the Flint River.

“Some of the best meals and conversations I’ve had happened around a campfire,” he said.

Crittenden also had a reputation for helping others. He kept a floor jack and four-way lug wrench in his car for the several times he changed a tire for folks stranded by the roadside.

“He’s got the best attitude,” said Griffith, an ecologist in Dacula, Ga. “If you knew O’Ree beforehand and now, the only thing that changed is his stature.”

“He’s laidback and compassionate,” said Pepper, owner of Columbus-based Greek Key Services, which constructs fraternity and sorority houses. “He’s not soured about his condition.”

Fifteen years ago, Crittenden was the mobile installation manager for HiFi Buys in Atlanta. The 1990 Shaw High graduate was a drummer in the school’s band when the Raiders marched in the 1989 inauguration of President George H.W. Bush.

Crittenden was planning to return to college to finish his bachelor’s degree in music at Columbus State University, where he studied for three years before pursuing his custom car stereo career full time.

He joined a bunch of friends from Columbus on a weekend trip to Pensacola, Fla. While on the beach, he saw a boy, about 7 years old, struggling to fly a kite.

The scene prompted Crittenden to remember the fun he had flying a kite when he was a kid. So with permission from the boy’s mother, he escorted him and his younger sister to the end of the pier, where the wind was better for flying a kite.

The boy’s smile turned to a frown when the kite plunged into the breaking surf.

Crittenden looked over the railing. The water was somewhat murky, but the area looked clear of rocks and debris. Besides, he was a strong swimmer, and he had performed open-water rescues, including the time he saved his mother when he was 10.

So he jumped, feet first.

A wooden post from the old pier was submerged out of view but too near enough the surface. Crittenden landed on it and was knocked unconscious in the waves.

A sign alerting swimmers to the danger was erected after his accident, Crittenden noted.

“I was the second person who got injured in that fashion at that very spot,” he said.

One of the children ran back to the beach to get their mother. She and a friend tried but couldn’t rescue Crittenden. His buddies noticed the commotion and pulled him from the ocean. He had been under water for 5-10 minutes.

A U.S. Army nurse from Fort Benning just so happened to be walking on the beach then and performed CPR to revive him.

Crittenden was airlifted to Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, where he underwent an eight-hour surgery to repair his damaged spine, fractured C3-4 vertebrae, disintegrated C5 vertebra and shattered C6 vertebra. Then he spent 11 days in a medically induced coma.

The date of his accident was Sept. 9, 2001 - two days before the terrorist attacks on America.

“I have no memory of 9/11,” he said and added with a smile, “I tell people that I had other things going on.”

Finally, 11 days after the accident, he learned what happened. Crittenden, who was intubated, had the tube removed and could speak with one of his visiting friends, Scott Kimbrough.

“Hey, man,” he told Kimbrough, “we’ve got to go home.”

“No, buddy,” Kimbrough replied. “You can’t go anywhere. You’re going to have to stay a while.”

After 3½ weeks in that hospital, Crittenden was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for rehabilitation.

In the spring of 2002, Crittenden went to the independent living program at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. He stayed there until he returned to Columbus State in August.

A Warm Springs counselor insisted during a group therapy session that Crittenden never would earn enough money to live on his own. Asked whether he was motivated to prove him wrong, he said, “My motivation was that day on the beach. I could have died then. If you aren’t going to die, you move on in life.”

Crittenden graduated from CSU three years later, in 2005, thanks to accommodations from staff members and assistance from his grandmother, who came to his dorm room and helped him get ready for class each morning.

“If I did it by myself then,” he said with a laugh, “it would have taken four hours and then I would have needed to take a nap.”

Crittenden has worked the past five years for Access 2 Independence, which helps the disabled live independently. He is assistant director of the Columbus office. He also serves on the Mayor’s Commission for People with Disabilities executive board and the Georgia Tools For Life League advisory board.

“He helps himself,” Pepper said. “He’s out there doing something with his life and for other people.”

When he dreams, Crittenden said, he often envisions himself hiking through the woods. In 2005, upon his graduation from CSU, the Ledger-Enquirer quoted him as saying, “I think the Appalachian Trail is probably out.”

He drives his adapted car to gaze over the Chattahoochee Valley from Pine Mountain vistas. He enjoys the view and the fresh air, but his disability blocks his desire to be on the trail. In fact, he said, he gets his outdoor fix now mostly by just grilling on his deck.

But now, with help from friends and other donors, that dream could become a reality.

Around Christmas last year, Griffith posted Facebook photos of himself backpacking with his children, and Crittenden commented, “I miss that.”

Griffith messaged Pepper, “We’ve got to make this happen.”

They broached the idea during lunch at Locos Grill & Pub. Crittenden hesitated at first, but he relented.

“I don’t like to ask for others to monetarily support my dreams,” he said. “The reality is that, if not for a fundraiser, this would not be a possibility.”

The TrailRider, developed by the British Columbia Mobility Opportunities Society, is a cross between a wheelbarrow and a rickshaw. It has one tire and requires able-bodied guides in the front and rear to pull and push the disabled rider.

So receiving the special wheelchair, he said, “would be life affirming for me. . It’d be the return to nature and seeing sites that only those who venture into backcountry can see and appreciate.”

___

Information from: Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, http://ledger-enquirer.com

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