Lindsey Elliott, peer group program coordinator (center) with members of United Spinal’s Minnesota chapter.

Lindsey Elliott, peer group program coordinator (center) with members of United Spinal’s Minnesota chapter.

Marcela Turnage and Kimberly Wooden formed an amazing friendship thanks to United Spinal Association’s Peer Mentor program, which brought the Nashville natives living with spinal cord injury (SCI) together as mentor and mentee earlier this year.

“Kim has a higher and different injury than me but we both have that close bond of having SCI,” says Turnage, a T12 paraplegic who has been mentoring Wooden since earlier this year. “I’m always in constant touch with her. We talk about everything from learning to adapt to a new body to dating. I tell her to stay positive and be open minded to anything.”

The indelible bond of Marcela and Kimberly is just one of the countless connections formed since United Spinal’s Peer Mentor program started uniting paralyzed pals from coast to coast with the ultimate goal of fostering independence among the newly injured and providing a friendly and supportive ear of someone who has been through and understands the life changing struggles of SCI.

“The goal of our program is to show prospective mentors the best way to help newly injured or diagnosed discover paths to greater health, independence and well-being,” says Program Coordinator Lindsey Elliott. “Being able to connect newly injured or diagnosed individuals with trained mentors who fully understand the issues and how to overcome them is an extremely valuable service.”

Although the program officially launched on a smaller scale in 2013, overwhelming support to expand to all United Spinal chapters nationwide garnered the attention of healthcare giant Hollister who generously funded cross-country mentor training sessions throughout 2015 and 2016.

“Many of our chapters expressed interest in a program like this and we revived our peer mentoring program to fulfill this need,” says Elliott.  “They were running informal mentoring programs and wanted something more concrete and solid. Through role playing, group discussion and group work we’re able to teach mentors new skills and knowledge needed to help their peers in the spinal cord injury and disorder community. The training covers mentoring skills such as good self-management, goal setting, problem solving skills and effective communication skills.”

In less than two years, the program has trained over 200 mentors within the chapter network and they have sites currently located from coast to coast in Houston, TX; Pittsburgh, PA; Las Vegas, NV; Boston, MA; Oklahoma City, OK; Madison, WI; Des Moines, IA; Rochester, NY; Minneapolis, MN; Richmond, VA; Nashville, TN; Little Rock, AR; Concord, NH; and Scranton, PA.

“Mentors have learned many new skills through participating in the training that they’ve been able to apply in real life scenarios when working with their peers,” says Elliott.

Turnage, who received her peer mentor certification last March, has devoted her time to mentoring the newly injured at Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehab hospital in Nashville. Remembering the tremendous support she received after her injury prompted Turnage’s strong desire to be a relatable and understanding ear to others enduring the same struggles.

“I remember 14 years ago when I was laying on that hospital bed. I was confused, heartbroken, I was scared that half of my body was paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do,” Turnage says. “I had my family and friends but always felt that they couldn’t understand what I was going through until I met a dear friend of mine who was in a chair and he became an example for me of how to live successfully and happy with a SCI. Now, I want to pay it forward and be there for others like my friend was there for me.”

And her mentoring responsibilities have taken her far beyond the confines of the hospital walls, attending adaptive recreational programs, wheelchair sporting events and countless social outings. She says getting out in the community and engaging with other SCI’s is crucial to a successful recovery and adapting physically and mentally to a changed reality.

“I’m staying involved by supporting events that benefit people with disabilities in the Nashville area besides going to the hospital to visit new patients,” Turnage says. “Through these events I’m able to meet people who are newly injured or have had a SCI for years. We have a big adaptive sports organization in Nashville called the National Wheelcats and I invite everyone I meet to try sports with me such as sled hockey, water-skiing, hand cycling, etc.”

Looking to the future, Elliott says they have big plans to continually expand the program, adding a virtual mentor program that will allow mentors and mentees to be connected despite geographical differences.

“The goal for 2017 will be to pair our trained mentors virtually with any peer in the country looking for mentoring services,” she says.

In addition United Spinal recently launched an innovative new database called PeerScope to keep the growing program running smoothly and provide organization among the many chapters.

“Since launching we realized the need for a database management system which would allow all of our sites to effectively track their program activities,” says Elliott. “We worked tirelessly on creating a database management system that would fit the very complex needs of this program and PeerScope was born. As the brand new secure database management system, each site will have access to be able to assign peers, coordinators and mentors and track all the program activities. I am very hopeful that PeerScope will be the answer to many of the issues the sites deal with on the administrative end of this program.”

Although each spinal cord injury is as unique as an individual fingerprint, Turnage acknowledges that “we are all in the same club” and says that helping those who are undergoing the same challenges she went through is more rewarding than her own successes she has accomplished throughout her 14 years in a wheelchair.

I want them to do better and be better than me, that will make me happy,” she says.

“My job as a mentor is not telling them what to do or be me. My job is to provide a positive environment for my mentee, to pass on what I have learned during all those years living with SCI, share my good and bad experiences, to listen more and talk less, to be an example of how to overcome and adapt to paralysis. It has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life. Through the mentorship program I have made lasting friendships, I feel content with myself, I am grateful and I’m not ashamed of rolling in a chair. I embrace it everyday and I want to empower my mentees to be proud of who they are and rock that chair,” she says.

And she encourages the thousands of others who are rocking life in a chair to get involved and help those who are newly injured to “roll” with the punches.

“We are an army of warriors who seek to brighten the lives of those living with SCI,” Turnage says. “We all have something to give. If you have been someone who has adapted and achieved great things after a spinal cord injury, reach out and help others to be where you are or greater.”

For more information on the Peer Mentor Program and to get involved visit