Community funds continue to support catastrophically injured athletes

by Melissa Martin

From narrowing down the essential features and finding a dealership with the car in stock to securing financing at the right price point, purchasing a new vehicle is always a process.

Factor in recent COVID-19 supply shortages and corresponding price increases, and the task becomes even more troublesome, particularly if the car has to be retrofitted to accommodate a person with special needs.

Wadsworth resident Kory Wiita and his wife, Kayla, can testify to the truth behind that statement after spending 2021 and several months prior looking for a new minivan to accommodate their young family of three.

“Just because of COVID-related shortages, we were going to have to pay $7,000 to $8,000 more right off the bat,” Wiita said. “That didn’t even include what it was going to cost to have the vehicle installed with the equipment I need. … We were looking for a way to make it work because we knew it was going to be a big payment.”

Wiita has never owned a car after suffering a severe spinal injury in 2009 that left him paralyzed from the chest down, including his fingers. He was just 17 years old at the time and playing football for the Highland Hornets when he made a tackle during the Friday-night game’s second-half kickoff and fractured three vertebrae in his neck. After several years of therapy and rehabilitation, Wiita has since regained much of his strength, both mentally and physically, but continues to rely on a wheelchair for mobility.

Craving a taste of independence

As he turns 30 this year, Wiita, who is employed as a certified financial planner for Pinnacle Wealth Planning Services after working three years as an assistant prosecutor for the Medina County Prosecutor’s Office, has his sights set on finally getting his driver’s license, which means a vehicle that can accommodate his disability is a priority.

Wiita said that, until now, he’s had to rely on his wife or his parents to transport him to the office for work and anywhere else he wanted to go using a specially equipped van that raises and lowers his wheelchair for travel. That van, he said, has more than 100,000 miles on it and was sorely in need of replacement.

As being able to drive to work and other places on his own is a milestone he’s always wanted to accomplish, Wiita said he wanted more than just to replace the van. He wanted one that would allow him his freedom. He knew that request was one that would be accompanied by an additional hefty price tag, yet it was an expense he and Kayla were willing to tackle on their own with a little help for the down payment from Kayla’s grandfather, Bill Heichel.

Until his phone rang in early December, that is. The caller was Bruce Noggle, a board member from the Brecksville-Broadview Heights philanthropy, Rush for a Cause.

“He called out of the blue to see if there was anything I needed medically or anything I needed help buying,” Wiita said. “I couldn’t believe the timing.”

Wiita is no stranger to the Rush for a Cause Organization, which was founded by Matt Galland, a Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School graduate, in response to Kory’s accident 12 years ago. Galland, a high school running back himself at the time, wanted to raise funds to help student athletes like Wiita who were catastrophically injured.

Mike Galland, Matt’s father and Rush for a Cause board member, said his son challenged several other running backs from other Northeast Ohio schools to solicit donations that would pay them for every yard they rushed during the 2010 football season.

“In the first year alone, they raised $35,000 and from there it just caught fire,” Mike Galland said.

To boost donations even more, the organization hosted the first community Blitz Day, which took place a week before the start of football season. More than 12,000 people participated in the inaugural fundraiser, which quickly became a community tradition, raising approximately $450,000 for injured student athletes in a few short years.

Though Matt Galland is now living on the west coast, continuing to serve in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy, he still serves as the president of Rush for A Cause. His parents and brother, Mike, also continue to serve as members of the board.

Continuing to aid injured athletes

Thanks to a healthy stock market, Mike Galland said the money the Rush for a Cause organization, with the involvement of the Brecksville, Broadview Heights and surrounding communities, collected more than a decade ago, continues to help those suffering catastrophically injured student athletes today. Since 2010, the 501(c)(3) organization has helped not only Wiita, but 15 other student athletes in Northeast Ohio as well as a handful of injured athletes out of state, with another $200,000 in the bank.

“The market has definitely treated us very well, which is how we’ve been able to help so many individuals like Kory,” Mike Galland said.

In addition to helping fund medical expenses, Rush for a Cause has helped families pay for mental and physical therapy, transportation costs, and have also purchased a tens unit for one injured athlete. As he was the organization’s inspiration, Mike Galland said the organization elected to reach back out to Wiita last fall hoping to share some of the remaining funds.

“A lot of the attention the organization received in the beginning has been lost over the years and people forget that we’re still here, that’s why we follow back up with a lot of these individuals and their families to help however we can,” he said, noting that the organization prefers to keep the money in Northeast Ohio to give back to the communities who helped raise it.

That is where Wiita steps back into the picture, Mike Galland said, noting that after speaking with him last fall, the organization elected to show up on his doorstep right before Christmas with a check to pay off the balance on the van.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Wiita said. “Their generosity has helped me more than once and I’m so very grateful for their generosity.”

Though his fully paid-off van is now in his possession, Wiita said it will be a few more weeks before the white 2021 Chrysler Voyager is outfitted with the hand controls he needs to drive. The lift, wheelchair ramp and easy locking system for the wheelchair have already been installed and Wiita said both have been a blessing to both him and his wife, who already has her hands full with loading their year-old daughter into the van. The new system allows him to enter the vehicle without assistance.

Mike Galland said he’s proud to see that Rush for a Cause continues to help local families the way it intended all these years later.

“We simply planted the seeds and the fruit has been plentiful, and has been all along,” he said. “But we couldn’t have done any of this without the generosity of our community.” ∞