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CFC exec shares personal story

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Tim Eldridge knew he was late.

But when he crested the hill on his motorcycle at 70 miles per hour and saw a car, it was too late to stop. Waking a week later in the hospital, the doctor told the budding athlete to "hang up his cleats." Tim Eldridge would never walk again. He was only 14.

"That's when life really got real for me," Mr. Eldridge explains. "That led me into depression, anger, alcohol, drugs."

And the list of things the wheelchair-bound young teenager thought he would never do began to grow.

Over the next several years, his grades suffered and his relationship with his mother were strained as both coped with the accident and disability. But a chance meeting with a stranger changed that.

The stranger turned out to be a board member for a small group that organized sports and recreational activities for disabled children. He invited Tim to play wheelchair basketball.

"And I loved it," Mr. Eldridge says. "After I was paralyzed, I thought the only thing I could compete in was checkers. And for the first time since the accident, I didn't feel alone. That was the moment I thought people could understand me."

Just as importantly, his mother found solace and empathy in the company of parents in similar situations as hers. As he became a regular player, Mr. Eldridge said, he noticed his mother in the bleachers beginning to smile and laugh again.

"I could see a change in her within months," he said.

Surrounded by others facing the same disability, Mr. Eldridge found inspiration. His coaches, who were also disabled, had careers, wives and families. By example they showed him life doesn't end with a disability.

"That list I had started getting smaller," Mr. Eldridge said. "The mentoring and examples led to a basketball scholarship to Southern Illinois University ... Which ultimately led me to Tinker, a proud member of the B-52 family."

A logistician with the 327th Aircraft Sustainment Group, Mr. Eldridge is now hoping to repay the debt of gratitude he owes. Mr. Eldridge is on loan to the United Way, which administers the Combined Federal Campaign, the federal government's official charity drive. More than 3,000 organizations - including the one that helped Mr. Eldridge - participate.

"I'm one of the three loaned executives for the Combined Federal Campaign," Mr. Eldridge explains. "We're responsible for training all key workers and monitors, not just for Tinker Air Force Base, but for all government offices. We teach those key workers how to administer the campaign."

This year's campaign began Oct. 7 and runs until Nov. 13. Officials hope to raise $1.7 million within the 45 Department of Defense organizations in central Oklahoma.

Having only joined Team Tinker a year ago, Mr. Eldridge said volunteering to help the campaign allows him to meet more people at Tinker in addition to giving him an opportunity to help the charities that helped him.

"This is my opportunity to provide help to others," he says. "Every charity in that book can help someone. That little organization made a huge difference in my life and my family's life." Mr. Eldridge eventually transferred from Southern Illinois University to Oklahoma State University where, along with six other students, they established a wheelchair basketball team and scholarships. He received a presidential award from the university president for his efforts.

"Six kids with disabilities pushed and pushed until they couldn't say no," he says.

Mr. Eldridge stayed active as a basketball player, eventually representing the United States in 1994 at an international competition before completing a master's degree in health promotion and disease prevention at Oklahoma University. He still competes and also coaches grade school-level basketball.

"I have a good time," he says.

He also goes fishing and hunting with his brothers, two burly adult men who often simply throw him over their shoulder as they tramp through the outdoors. Mr. Eldridge even clambered up a tree hunting stand one season.

"I got a deer that morning," he adds.

But for all the activity, Mr. Eldridge credits the chance meeting of one person - and one small organization - for altering his life.

"It doesn't take a lot of effort to change a person's life," he says.