CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. — After suffering a devastating spinal cord injury in 2004 in which Natalie Barnhard had to leave her home in Cheektowaga to receive intense rehabilitation, she was inspired to start her own foundation and recovery center to help others with spinal cord injuries.
Barnhard was a 24-year-old physical therapy assistant and licensed massage therapist just out of college in 2004 when a 600 pound piece of equipment fell on her neck as she was working with a patient. Her life changed in a split second.
"I knew right away it was bad. I just knew I was paralyzed," said Barnhard. "I always felt like I had this gift of helping people. I loved people. I loved healing, using my hands to help. And now all of a sudden that's gone. I can't even get the hair out of my face. I can't eat. I can't brush my teeth. I am completely paralyzed. And I remember crying and saying to my mom, 'Why would God give me a gift to help people just to have it taken away?' I couldn't comprehend that. And she said to me, 'No, Natalie. That's not our God. I really feel like he has something bigger for you. He has huge plans.' But at that time I couldn't see that."
She moved to Atlanta for a decade for intense therapy. And when she received a multi-million dollar settlement from her lawsuit, she knew she wanted to use much of it to build a state of the art facility back home in Cheektowaga. Before she did that, she started her own foundation in 2008 previously known as Wheels with Wings. It later became called the Motion Project Foundation. It has funded more than $300,000 in quality-of-life grants for others living with spinal cord injuries.
"It gave quality-of-life grants for things like wheelchairs, home and vehicle modifications. But the number one request we would always get is more rehab because insurance doesn't pay for this," said Barnhard. "After people get finished with their traditional PT and OT they're kind of left saying, 'what do I do now, because there's so much more recovery to be had?' And that always bothered me. Nobody should be denied that ability to get better."
So in 2021, Barnhard, her parents, and the foundation board cut the ribbon the Natalie Barnhard Center for Spinal Cord Injury, Rehabilitation and Recovery on Genesee Street. Now there are three trainers and 22 full-time clients using equipment not found anywhere else in Western New York.
That includes a Lokomat — a robotic exoskeleton that supports body weight. And a 95 foot overhead zero g track. A partnership with the University at Buffalo also brings students studying PT, OT and exercise physiology for internships and clinical training, and it also provides patients access to research opportunities.
"Having this place, it's an answer to a problem a lot of people have especially in Western New York," said client and Motion Project board member Peter Brady.
Brady was paralyzed in a diving accident 10 years ago at the age of 19. He says his legs have gotten stronger since coming here, and more importantly he's maintaining a healthy lifestyle and he has Barnhard to thank for that.
"The thing is I'm not surprised. Like 'Oh my God, Natalie did this. How did she do this?' No. It's what Natalie does. It's how she operates. She's a rock star."
She's a motivational speaker and activist and she also started the WNY Chapter of United Spinal Association to bring programs and resources to the community. The United Spinal Association recognized Barnhard last year with the Finn Bullers Advocate of the Year Award.
"It was amazing to be honored nationally like that," she said.
Motion Project and the recovery center are not just changing lives physically, but emotionally Barnhard is inspiring others with spinal cord injuries by showing them they can accomplish their goals and have a fulfilling life despite their physical limitations.
"If I can help just one person with this it is so worth it to me. And it really does make my own injury worth it. Which is something I never thought would come out of my mouth, but it is because it's something bigger than myself," Barnhard said.
Ultimately Barnhard wants to expand with the help of donors and add a pool and gym, and also create an endowment so no one has to be turned away regardless of their ability to pay.
As for a personal goal, Barnhard in getting married in the summer of 2023 and she is working to hopefully stand at her wedding.
To learn more about the Motion Project Foundation and the Natalie Barnhard Center for Spinal Cord Injury, Rehabilitation and Recovery, click here.
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