Paralyzed ex-athlete's foundation helping others

Wednesday - 4/3/2013, 10:44am EDT

Associated Press

CLAREMONT, Calif. (AP) -- As he rolls through the front door of the sprawling Claremont Club fitness center and shouts a friendly hello here and there, for just a moment it's as if nothing has changed since Hal Hargrave Jr. was the big, friendly teenage gym rat who haunted this place.

The burly Hargrave's head was filled with dreams of playing college baseball as he strode into the gym, stretched out on a bench and pressed 300 pounds above his body. Again and again.

He's still big and burly, his arms still muscular and he still works out nearly every day. Only these days Hargrave uses that strength to move his wheelchair in and out of the gym, where he still works out 20 hours a week and knows just about everybody in the place.

These days, though, Hargrave's goal is to get walking again, something he lost the ability to do on July 26, 2007, when he swerved his truck to avoid debris in the road. It flipped four times, the cab collapsing on him and snapping his spine. It left him paralyzed from the neck down.

The irony is never lost on Hargrave that he was delivering handicapped-accessible bathroom doors as part of a summer job. If it was a sign to a strapping 17-year-old athlete that his life was headed in the wrong direction, it would seem to have been a particularly harsh one, but Hargrave doesn't see it that way.

"Some people call me crazy for putting it this way, but I have been given a gift," the talkative, friendly 23-year-old says with a smile over lunch at the gym's small cafe. "They see this as an ailment. I don't."

He sees it instead as something that gave him a chance to help others, to have his life truly make a difference.

It inspired him to create the Be Perfect Foundation, a nonprofit charity that has raised $1.2 million to provide wheelchairs, make homes more accessible and, most importantly, keep more than 100 people in rehabilitation programs they otherwise couldn't afford.

All of which would have been pretty impressive if Hargrave had just stopped there. But he didn't.

He persuaded the Claremont Club president to turn a racquetball court and a basketball court into a wing for people with paralyzing injuries. Then he got Project Walk, a spinal rehabilitation center where he'd been treated, to open its first franchise in this bucolic college town 35 miles east of Los Angeles for those who couldn't make the commute to its San Diego area headquarters.

"Here's a 17-year-old boy who had a debilitating, life-changing accident," said Mike Alpert, who runs the Claremont Club and whose daughter has known Hargrave since the two were in kindergarten. "So many people that go through that would give up. Would be depressed. Would blame everybody else. Here's a young man who just said, 'I have a calling to change the world and to help people through what's happening to me. And then he goes out and does it! How special is that?"

"He's an amazing young man," echoes Devorah Lieberman, president of University of La Verne, where Hargrave is a full-time student.

Although he hasn't regained full use of his fingers (he fist bumps rather than shakes hands), he's gotten back enough to take notes on his iPad. He maintains a near-perfect 3.8 grade point average.

Lieberman will never forget the first time they met two years ago at a basketball rally. Hargrave, never known to be shy, rolled up and introduced himself. He told her how he'd been hurt and she expressed her condolences.

"And he said to me, 'DO NOT be sorry! It was a blessing.'"

Then he gave her a Be Perfect bracelet that she wears to this day.

Not that the road back from the accident was easy.

"It was very touch and go the first two weeks," recalled his father, Hal Hargrave Sr., who still chokes up when he talks about what his son has overcome and accomplished. "They had him on breathing machines. He got pneumonia. ... We didn't know if he was going to stay with us or not."

Hargrave himself thought he would die as he lay trapped in the truck. Those stories about your life passing before you, he says, are true.

Although he's big and strong again, nerve damage keeps his body in a near perpetual state of motion, giving the impression he's fidgeting uncomfortably in his chair although he really feels little.