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Securing Atlanta's Future Thought Leadership

The Journey from “I Can’t” to “I Can”

By Sarah Batts, Executive Director of the Shepherd Center Foundation and Past-President of The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc.

In the wee hours of December 21, 2019, I received a call that told me 2020 would be beyond challenging. I groggily answered the phone to hear Sarah Morrison, president, and CEO of Shepherd Center, say, “Friend, I am sad to share that James (Shepherd, co-founder of Shepherd Center) just passed away. I will meet you at Shepherd Center to support his family and our patients, families, and staff. And we will begin to roll out the contingency plan that James and the Board outlined to ensure the Shepherd legacy continues to thrive. See you there in 20.”

As I lay there stunned, I wanted to scream, “NO!” My heart ached at losing the brilliant and devoted family man who always championed others and possessed a wicked sense of humor. In 1975, he decided to turn his personal experience with a devastating spinal cord injury into co-founding Shepherd Center – the country’s leading hospital specializing in medical treatment, research, and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions.

With many others’ help, he and the Shepherd Center team dedicated their lives to taking the so-called impossible cases and helping patients and families pursue meaningful, fulfilling lives they otherwise might have thought no longer viable. Thanks to those early leaders and the fantastic team they built, today Shepherd Center cares for individuals with the most complex cases and leads the country in returning them home, back to work or school, and back to their families.

This year has knocked all of us to our knees. In those moments when I feel consumed with all the barriers we face – a global pandemic, a country struggling to dismantle systemic racism, unemployment, extreme isolation, and devastating mental illness – and wondering where to find hope for our future, I am reminded of James. He often said Shepherd Center is the bridge between “I can’t” and “I can.” We should all pursue that bridge right now. And it’s James’s life that shows us how to both build and cross it.

All I have to do is recall one of his masterful pranks to find the blueprint for that bridge. I am not a prankster for those who don’t know me, and that is why I became the ideal victim for James’s sense of humor. Each year, Shepherd Center holds Adventure Skills Workshop, a camp for our patient alumni and those with similar injuries or illnesses across the country. There, campers learn to waterski, rock climb, and more. The camp is a highlight of Shepherd’s Recreation Therapy Program, which helps patients lead healthy and active lifestyles as independently as possible through recreation activities.

It was there, surrounded by volunteers, board members, campers, and their families, that James turned to me and said, “Batts, it’s time for us to go tubing.” I had jokingly told the volunteers that I would only go tubing if James went, knowing full well that he would not. After all, we were hosting board members, and a camera crew was filming him. I knew I was safe. Imagine my surprise when this 68-year-old co-founder and board chair with a high-level spinal cord injury showed up in swim trunks! I knew I was in trouble, and while fully dressed in normal clothes, I begrudgingly climbed into a three-person tube with James and his daughter Julie. As we sped across the lake, he tried to tip me out. And when we docked, you could see just how James’ action inspired our younger campers to find their “I can” moment also.

As I think back on that day, I realize how James laid the bridge and how we crossed it. It comes down not to the “I,” but instead to the “we.” You see, for any of us to move from “I can’t” to “I can,” we need each other to move forward, listen, serve and never give up. (And a sense of humor is a bonus.)

As I looked around that day, I recognized everyone who made the day possible. Shepherd’s founding medical director, David Apple, M.D., initially sacrificed his salary to pay for the first recreation therapist many years ago at Shepherd Center because he knew the value of that therapy even when insurance would not cover it. He knew the difference these experts would make in the lives of our patients. Then, philanthropist Arthur Blank established the Recreation Therapy Endowment to ensure continual support because this vital program is still not reimbursed by insurance. And today, volunteers and donors come together with the country’s largest and leading recreation therapy program to turn moments of “I can’t go canoeing with my family” to “I can.”

As you look to 2021 and wonder how to move from “I can’t” to “I can,” I urge you to think of James Shepherd. Let his life serve as the blueprint to building and crossing that bridge. Know that the path is achievable together. Volunteer, listen to the community, and serve the mission that is meaningful to you. Never give up. You can find ways to connect and help through organizations, such as The Junior League of Atlanta, Inc., the United Way, Rotary, faith-based organizations, and, of course, Shepherd Center. Look for and celebrate those moments of laughter, but next time, can I at least grab a swimsuit before we go tubing? I’ll see you all across the bridge to a realm of all that is possible! Bring on 2021!


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  1. Carol Thompson December 15, 2020 5:40 pm

    Sarah,what a wonderfully written article. You captured the spirit of Shepherd Center, the imp in James Shepherd, and you made me cry at the end. This is a nostalgic time of year anyway and a year with challenges that have never been faced. Thank you for sharing this wonderful writing and for remembering a special James Shepherd.Report

  2. Marion Bunch December 15, 2020 10:14 pm

    Sarah, Beautifully written and your personal story about you and James really brought home the Shepherd Motto of I Can’t to I Can! We are all looking forward to getting re-involved with the staff and patients next year and personally experiencing our connection to Shepherd . It’s been too long! Warmest wishes, Marion BunchReport

  3. Mariel Risner Sivley December 18, 2020 11:16 am

    This is a very beautiful elegy, thank you for sharing and for sharing the good work being done and to be supported.Report

  4. Maxine Bibbins December 22, 2020 7:48 pm

    Beautiful, you did him proud.Report

  5. Lizanne Stephenson August 13, 2021 9:51 am

    Well done all around. Beautifully written with great message.Report


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