June 18, 2019 | 72° F

Eric LeGrand speaks at event for disabled children

Photo by Avalon Zoppo |

Former Rutgers defensive tackle and inspirational speaker Eric LeGrand speaks at St. Joseph High School’s 2015 Winterfest to a crowd of children facing disabilities.

Gabriel Hurley and Eric LeGrand, two Rutgers alumni, have more in common than their matching alma maters.

Both Hurley and LeGrand suffer from disabilities. Hurley lost his eyesight and sense of smell in a car crash six years ago, while LeGrand became paralyzed after being tackled in a Rutgers college football game in 2010.

The two graduates decided to give back to children with disabilities and special needs by making an appearance at St. Joseph High School’s 2015 Winterfest.

Around 100 people enjoyed food, games and live entertainment at the four-hour long event, which was coordinated by students of St. Joseph’s High School. The students set up raffles for the children, giving away different toys and games. 

“I think the event is completely for the kids to have a time where they feel invited, appreciated and feel like people,” Hurley said.

LeGrand gave a short talk on his experience with disability, how he coped with the challenges that arose and began to make progress.

He described the moments leading up to his accident and then later waking up in the hospital the following Wednesday.

When he woke up in the hospital, LeGrand said he woke up to a room full of posters, football jerseys and cards. 

“All of these people were reaching out to me because they heard my story,” he said.

He recalled the doctors telling his mother that he would never walk or breathe on his own again. But eventually, LeGrand stopped needing a ventilator.

“They didn’t know what the hard work, will and determination of a person could do,” he said. 

LeGrand told onlookers that he often reminds himself there are people in the world that would be grateful to be in his shoes.

“No matter how bad it might be, there is always someone out there who has it worse,” he said. “Focus on the things you do have, not the things you don’t have.”

High-school students paired up with disabled children to participate in a scavenger hunt, dance on the dance floor and participate in a game of limbo. 

The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation endorsed the event and Magic 98.3 provided music for the day. 

Adele Ellis, coordinator of the event, said Winterfest has grown substantially since last year, when about 30 people attended.

“We had a better way to reach out to the community this year,” she said. “We managed this year to get in touch with facilities that deal with people with disabilities, so that helped.”

The Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick and the Lakeview School in Edison brought in patients and students, she said. Eric LeGrand making an appearance also helped the turnout, she said. 

Brandon Goldy, a St. Joseph’s High School senior, said the event has an all-around good atmosphere and relieves pressure for everyone involved. 

“For the parents of disabled children, it can get frustrating,” Goldy said. “I think it’s a good day to take some of the pressure off.”

ShowStoppers Plus, one of New Jersey’s premiere event companies, planned the activities for the children and gave away balloons, bracelets and shirts that read “I Make a Difference.”

Roll Call Wheel Chair Dance, a non-profit organization that specializes in teaching wheelchair users how to dance with standing partners, had a group of their members perform a dance entitled “Possibilities.”

Their motto is “egos and disabilities checked at the door,” said member Kevin Greene, who became disabled after a car accident.

Mark Bobko, a St. Joseph’s High School senior, said it is most rewarding for the volunteers to see the smiles they put on the kids’ faces.

Bobko said he has a cousin with Down syndrome and believes the event helps the children and young adults interact with new people.

“[My cousin] means well and everything she does is for other people,” Bobko said. “We don’t always get to see what is underneath, but this event helps [change] that.”

Avalon Zoppo

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