This lady has style, class, and the determination to make a difference. Not only in the recovery and function for people who have lived through her same spinal cord injury, but Natalie Barnhard provides an immediate and tangible relief for others through her foundation that makes lives more independent, joyful, and safe.
Former physical therapist assistant and massage therapist, Barnhard was injured in 2004 by a 600 lb. exercise weight machine that fell on her at work, resulting in C5-6 level quadriplegia. Despite her injury, she has the personality of a social butterfly and a brain of a community organizer, which is allowing her to live out her big plans now that she has relocated back to her hometown of Buffalo, New York.
Barnhard decided to move back after a 10-year stint in Atlanta, where she was focused on her own recovery, with the hope of someday being able to give back and pursue her dream of building a state of the art SCI recovery center in Buffalo, which would allow her to help other people in her community to Rise Above Spinal Cord Injury.
Her nonprofit organization, Wheels with Wings, (don’t you just love that name?) has provided 15 grants so far, via numerous sponsorship, four 5K walk events, and a meat raffle fundraiser. Their 5th annual walk is coming up September 24th on Buffalo’s beautiful waterfront.
Her foundation has provided for a young girl who was only able to receive sponge baths in the living room to have her bathroom renovated, covered the rehab costs for a few months for those whose insurance stopped coverage too soon, a donation of the cost of a mobility van (which can cost twice the cost of a regular van due to high priced modifications), and a new wheelchair for someone in need.
Here is just a snapshot of why Natalie has her own set of “wheels with wings”:
- Started Wheels with Wings Foundation, Inc. a 501C3 nonprofit organization
- Wheel:Life (featured in the book: Reconnecting: Relationship Advice from Wheelchair Users, a book put out by Wheel: Life, featured my story).
- Sits on the product advisory board for Bard Medical.
- Community advocate
- Started the WNY Chapter of United Spinal Association and regional chapter coordinator for Great Lakes
- Received Buffalo’s Business First Women of Influence Award 2015
- Received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Trocaire College 2015 and Villa Maria College (and was commencement speaker in 2016)
- Working on creating and development of a unique neurological recovery and wellness center here in WNY
After moving back to Buffalo, Natalie went through a transition period of rebuilding her network friends and her new life was, according to her, “overwhelming.”
“I definitely lost some friends I thought would be in my life forever,” Barnhard said. “It was difficult to understand, and I had to grieve for the loss of those relationships. The friends I’ve made since my injury far surpass those who are no longer in my life. People with strong character and big hearts, who want to spend time with me not because they feel obligated or like it helps their own conscious and feelings of guilt–their ‘good deed’ it seems. Those people made me feel as though I was a burden and responsibility–they weren’t wanting to spend time with me and the person they know I am, but instead made me feel like a victim or charity case. I don’t need or want that energy in my life. I try to surround myself with positive and encouraging people. A wheelchair should NOT ever be a determining factor whether someone wants to be your friend or not. Both new and old friendships should be based on the person and who someone is. I would rather have a couple of close friends who truly care about me verse many who feel they have to be because we were friends before my injury.”
Why did you decide to move back to Buffalo?
I decided to move home to Buffalo to work on growing my foundation and begin the development of a neurological recovery center. I needed to be home to start networking and start putting it all together. I want to advocate for people here who don’t know the resources available to them. I gave ten years to my own therapy and recovery as a full-time job. So it was time to move on to my other goals and passions that had developed since my injury. Recovery is something lifelong but can’t be the only thing you do and consume every aspect of your life. It would be another tragedy not to live life or strive to do what you want or are called to do. It’s finding a balance. It was extremely difficult giving up therapy feeling as though I am as good as I’m going to be. Feeling that the function I have is the most I’ll ever get. Therapy kept hope alive inside me, and when I left it behind (yes to pursue other goals and dreams), I felt sad that I was giving up. Is this it for me? Will I heal more or am I just coming to the realization that I’ve gained all I could in my recovery? It’s very hard to know the answers to those questions, but I ended up grieving when I transitioned home and did not see that coming. It hit me hard because I expected to pick up my life back in my hometown and it just didn’t happen that way. I needed time to adjust in many ways. There clearly was a level of acceptance I had not gone through because I was always in therapy with the mindset of gaining more function, more strength, more movement, more, more, more. Even though improvements were slow, it kept me healthy and in shape. Coming home and not involved in any therapy has made me feel more depressed and less healthy. I’ve lost muscle tone quickly, realizing how much exercise 3-5 days a week helped! I know getting a recovery center built here will truly help me and others in this area with nowhere to go to get intense exercise. So it’s my mission!!!
Did you do all the design and decorating yourself? If not, who can we give a shout out to?
It was my mom and I who did all the interior design and decorating
I noticed your design is not what one would expect to see in a “accessible or modified home”. Your kitchen counter is normal height level, there are no apparent roll under cabinets, your bathroom is a regular tub, and your bed and closet do not seem any different from what one would expect to see. There no visible “wheelchair accessible” design elements. Can you describe where they would and how you decided on the features in each room?
The reason I chose the features in the way that I did were for very specific reasons. First of all I wanted my home to be what is considered ‘universal design’, where accessibility doesn’t look as though something was modified to be made that way for any particular reason other than the fact that you liked the design element in that room. I want to my home to be a reflection of me, the sanctuary to go and feel safe and comfortable. Then I wanted my space to be as functional as possible given my C5-6 level of injury. I did not lower the counters in my kitchen for example, because I knew that I would be unable to cook myself and did not want to make pmore difficult on those that would be cooking in my kitchen. So there were some elements that I decided to do simple standard measurements for, knowing it wasn’t something I would really be able to use myself anyways. Instead I decided to focus more on the things that would make the biggest difference for me such as the doors, bathroom vanity, shower controls, closet design, and a home automation system. Here are a few things I decided to do:
Doors: I used a door handle that is attached and connected at the top & bottom so I can slide my hand into the handle because I am unable to grasp a regular doorknob or push handle. The door also uses a roller instead of a normal latch to easily push the door open or close without needing any force.
Bathroom Vanity: for this I decided to take out the second sink, make that a vanity for myself to get ready at and on the other side I put a sink in that was functional for me and so I could reach the lever to control the water. There is no piping for the plumbing in the way and I put the vanity drawers to the outside keep the entire middle section free for me to move from one side to the other easily. The counter is also at a lowered height.
Shower controls: all of the controls in my shower are touchscreen so that I can easily turn the temperature up or down, I also put in a steam shower to help with my temperature control. Between the steam & the towel warmer I am no longer freezing anymore taking a shower.
Closet design: I hired a closet organization company to design all of the shelves, cabinets, and hanging racks in my closet to be able to see all of my clothes at my level. All of my jewelry is at my level behind matching cabinet doors easy for me to open and I have racks for all of my shoes to see all of them as well.
Home Automation system: because of my limited and function I need help with most of my ADLs so therefore I decided to put home automation to have independence with things such as: lights, curtains, temperature, TV, music, and a camera security system. As most people living with a spinal cord injury know maintaining independent and control of your life and environment is huge to your overall health and well-being. Even the littlest things you can do yourself make such a big difference.
Do you plan on having a home office in Condo?
Right now, I have a desk I use as a mini office for the time being. I also hold foundation board meetings in my home around the dining room table.
How long do you hope to live there?
I hope to live here for quite a while and maybe in the future, if I get married I will buy or build a home somewhere with some land and space with a beautiful wrap around porch. But right now this is perfect, ideal for me right now especially because it’s low maintenance. I’m in the middle of the city where there is a lot going on around me which is fun. My place is also great for get-togethers and entertaining which I love to do!
Would you ever swap condo for an accessible property of equivalent value in a city you want to visit?
Could be a really great idea, but I’ve never given that much thought. I would do it if I knew the person would be someone honest and trustworthy to be in my home.
Where would you want to travel to?
Italy, Australia, various places throughout the United States as well.
What would hold you back from travel?
The only thing that would hold me back is not having the right type of caregiver who could take me. If I only went with one other girl, we would have to make sure it’s pretty accessible. If I went with a group, then that would be less of an issue for me because I’m open to challenges and we could make most things work. I went camping in the gorge in Washington state literally in the middle of nowhere this past summer, and that was definitely a challenge when my wheelchair (and also my friend’s wheelchair) did not fit inside the trailer that we rented, but we did figure it out, made it work and have lasting funny memories because of it.
What are your top 5 favorite things about your life right now?
- Living close to my family and friends independently in my new beautiful condo. Such a blessing!!
- The amazing opportunities presenting themselves
- Being able to use my life changing injury to help other people in the same situation
- Watching my foundation grow and become more well-known therefore having the ability to help more.
- All the learning and growing I’m doing despite my ups and downs and seeing the vision and plan God has given me slowly coming into reality. I cannot wait to see how the journey of my life that God is leading become something so beautiful I can’t even imagine. The ability to change my community and help others with spinal cord injuries makes it worth it all!
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What does that look like?
Hopefully, in five years the recovery center of my dreams will be open and thriving by helping I people with SCI and other neurological injuries. I’m currently headed in that direction and the start of development.
What are your support systems in your place?
I have 24 hour caregivers with a group of great girls and have my parents 15 minutes away if I really need them when a caregiver calls off.
Are you able to live completely independently alone now?
No, I still need care, being a C5-6 quadriplegic.
- Founder/ President of the Wheels With Wings Foundation, Inc
- Regional Chapter Coordinator:United Spinal’s Great Lakes Region
- Founder/ Representative of the Western New York/ Buffalo Chapter of the United Spinal Association