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A Decade of Devotion

Featured Photo from A Decade of Devotion

For 10 years, NextStep Orlando has given those living with spinal cord injuries hope, encouragement, and the drive to one day walk again.

At NextStep Orlando, clients coping with spinal cord injuries celebrate the small wins. Consistent strides on a treadmill, a few extra seconds of standing independently, or shortening the time to perform an activity – these are more than just physical improvements, they are tiny sparks of hope that ignite a positive mind-set towards progress. 

The Altamonte Springs-based nonprofit organization features a state-of-the-art paralysis recovery and fitness center, and it is also part of an international network of rehab centers that are designed to be accessible and affordable to individuals living with paralysis and other neurological disorders.

“In the beginning, having our own rehab center seemed like such a pipedream,” says Lake Mary High grad Amanda Perla Jereczek, “but here we are celebrating 10 years in the community!”

Amanda and her mom Liza Perla-Riedel are the reason NextStep Orlando exists. Amanda suffered a spinal cord injury in an auto accident in 2007, leaving her quadriplegic. She was told there would be no hope for recovery, and she needed to resign herself to life in a wheelchair. Liza, however, would not accept such a fate. From the most challenging time in their lives, an amazing idea took shape.

“I started to look for a program that would help people in Central Florida like my daughter find a way to stay healthy and give her a better quality of life,” says Liza, who found no such option. Instead, she traveled with Amanda across the country to California for treatment during the first few years. “Did I know that our organization would grow to become such an incredible facility? I really did not understand the magnitude of what we were doing at the time and the need for it in our community, but what I did learn is that when you do the right thing, everything works out!”

Initially founded under the name Project Walk in 2009, the organization opened its doors... or, should we say its garage door in a tiny warehouse in Sanford. It was humble beginnings for the fledgling nonprofit. Large mirrors were duct-taped to the walls to help clients see their own progress, and the gym’s equipment consisted of a couple therapy tables and a spin bike. During another temporary move to a location in Longwood, the organization transitioned to the name NextStep Orlando and recently settled into its new home in Altamonte Springs. Amanda works as the scheduling coordinator and Liza as the executive director.

The facility now boasts top-notch training and exercise equipment, a dedicated staff of specialized activity-based trainers, and an intern and scholarship program. The organization is also part of the NeuroRecovery Network (NRN), a cooperative of cutting-edge rehab centers funded by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Locomotor training is the method of physical therapy used by the NRN, in which the client is suspended in a harness over a treadmill, while therapists move the client’s legs and body to simulate walking. Other treatment services available at NextStep Orlando include neuromuscular electrical stimulation, guided exercise, pediatric activity-based therapy, and unlimited gym access.

“We are the only NextStep affiliate in Florida, and we are part of a bigger database of spinal cord injury research,” explains Amanda. “People are coming from all over the country and the world for therapy. We never expected it to reach so far, but it’s amazing to be able to show people that there is hope after a spinal cord injury. You have to work for it, but if you stay active and healthy, you can do it.”

Amanda would know best. She recently took her first step after seven years of paralysis. She’s also slowly, but surely learning to crawl.

“Amanda is achieving something she couldn’t do before, and that’s what we want,” says Travis Allen, a senior activity-based coach. “Our clients are more positive and have a better outlook on their situation. They grow as people with the assistance of therapy.”

The organization’s signature Walk-N-Roll-A-Thon fundraising event is an annual showcase of what NextStep Orlando can do for its clients. Community supporters gather to cheer them on as they take a long, brave walk down a red carpet with the help of their therapists. It’s a touching demonstration of progress and determination and bears witness to the power of persistence and hope. In celebration of its 10-year anniversary, NextStep Orlando hosted a gala at Heathrow Country Club in late August featuring guest speaker Alexendra Reeve Givens, daughter of spinal cord injury advocate and actor Christopher Reeve, best known as Superman in the 1978 classic movie.

Reaching the 10-year mark is a major milestone for the organization, but Amanda, Liza, and the team at NextStep Orlando will always celebrate what matters most: the small wins along the way. 

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