Recently, family, friends and even complete strangers poured out their support so that fellow Memphian, John Payne (ECS class of 1997), could walk again.
In June 1998, just a year after high school, Payne, a high level mountain bike racer, was training in Chattanooga for nationals later that year. While training, Payne was involved in a freak accident and suffered a spinal cord injury, paralyzing him from the chest down.
While others may have resorted to anger, doubt and idleness at such a tragedy, Payne forged ahead, determined to live out his life as normally as before, enrolling in classes just two months later and graduating college in four years.
As a part of adapting to his new life, Payne remained active physically and through volunteer work. He began hand-bicycling (on a hand-crank bicycle) and wheelchair racing. He also volunteered for two major running organizations: the Memphis Runners Track Club for 17 years and Memphis Youth Athletics since its inception in 2014, serving both as a race timer, enabling and encouraging others to run, a pleasure he had been denied. He has served both organizations on their boards and as president. In addition, Payne has volunteered for Girls on the Run and serves on the board for Accessible Hope International and is hoping to participate in relief work through them in Sierra Leone in the next year. Throughout all of his efforts volunteering in the running community, Payne never gave up his dream to one day walk again.
In 2020, an opportunity to fulfill his dream presented itself in the form of a new device called ReWalk, an exoskeleton which depends on user-controlled technology and weight balance to walk. But this device came with a hefty price tag. Payne traveled to North Carolina to learn more about it and see the device in use. That’s when he decided to post about this opportunity on Facebook, which began a grassroots effort to make Payne’s dream come true.
Bill Rhodes, CEO of AutoZone, for which Payne works as a senior operations analyst, got wind of Payne’s opportunity, and reached out to him to learn more about the ReWalk device. He encouraged Payne to get in touch with AutoZone’s Human Resources who worked to find a way for Payne to get his own device.
AutoZone Human Resources and Community Relations connected Payne to a fundraising organization, I GOT LEGS, that helps raise money for ReWalk devices. After retaining their services, he had raised $20,000 in just four days! However, there was still a long way to go to raise the $92,250 needed to purchase this exoskeleton. As word got out, donations kept pouring in, and he had reached the $67,000 mark. That’s when a longtime Memphis journalist learned about this fundraising effort.
Payne explained, “Geoff Calkins (of the Daily Memphian) wanted to do an article on it. He called me that night. He posted the article on Monday, April 12. By Tuesday morning, we had raised $81,000, and within the hour, we were over the goal.” Payne was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
Calkins wrote in his follow-up article on April 13: “I chronicled Payne’s story in a Monday column. Readers responded as I suspected they would. It’s not just that Payne is a good guy who suffered misfortune. It’s that he didn’t let his misfortune get in the way of giving back.”
The total amount raised was $129,447, well over his goal, donated from friends in the running community as well as complete strangers. The surplus will be used to help others walk.
Payne was given access to a refurbished exoskeleton to increase his speed of training. He attends training three times a week with a physical therapist, Melanie Morton, who, incidentally, is married to an ECS alumnus, Richard Morton (class of 1994). This specialized training helps Payne learn how to work the battery-powered device that straps onto his legs and lower back. Payne moves the ReWalk device to different modes such as stand and walk through a Bluetooth-paired watch while he balances his weight on crutches. Learning how to synchronize the device to his body to produce controlled movement takes about 30-40 sessions to become proficient; Payne is about halfway through his training.
“It’s pretty mechanical. It’s all driven by a device but with a lot of input from the user.” Payne adds, “It is way harder than I thought it was going to be. It’s a lot of work.” It’s a good thing he has remained so active!
Throughout his journey, Payne credits his family and friends for their support. “Family has had a big role to play. My church, friends and parents helped support me a lot.” His friendships from ECS have been a part of this as well. Payne reflected, “ECS has provided me with good life values and a Christian education. I have remained engaged in my church. ECS has provided me with a lot of good friends such as the Butler family.”
Fellow ECS classmate David Butler said of his friend, “Being able to walk alongside this journey with John has been an awesome and yet humbling experience. JP does more from his chair than many able-bodied individuals. Whether it’s marathons or timing youth running events, he just refused to let his injury define him.
“John’s positive attitude and sense of humor have been magnetic for everyone he has come into contact with. I’ve watched two of my brothers complete marathons because of John’s example and encouragement.”
Butler continued, “It’s been a testament to JP’s determination and faith in God’s plan for him for this opportunity to come to fruition. JP has worked, researched and prepared for this opportunity when it was still theoretical research. I’m excited for his wife Sabrina, family and his friends to be able to see him stand and walk since, for some, they have only known him in a chair. It’s an answer to 20+ years of prayers.”