"My story is not unique. There are countless other individuals with disabilities who feel depressed, who are isolated from society, and who do not see the potential within themselves. I founded Global Abilities to reach these individuals, to give them the tools and motivation to become more confident in themselves and more engaged in their communities."
Working with the nonprofit Global Abilities this semester, we have been learning about what this organization is and what it stands for. Not only does Global Abilities makes sure to supply resources and support for those who have a physical disability, but they strive to educate the public about those with disabilities. We wanted to take the chance to learn a bit more about the person who is behind GAF. AJ Nanayakkara started Global Abilities back in 2011 and his story helped to shape what Global Abilities is becoming.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
AJ: I was born in Sri Lanka, and I moved to the U.S. along with my family when I was ten years old. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but I now live in Maryland with my wife (Kelly) and our dog (Leelu). I earned a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Temple University and a Master’s in Comparative and International Disability Policy from American University in Washington, DC.
When I was twenty years old, I sustained a spinal cord injury that left me unable to walk, paralyzed below the chest level, with limited movement in my arms and hands. However, I lead a very active life and compete in wheelchair racing and wheelchair rugby. I am currently the player/coach for the Global Abilities Fury wheelchair rugby team in Baltimore, MD. I also love traveling and have been to five continents. My favorite travel experiences include backpacking through Europe with Kelly and holding a baby lion in my lap in South Africa.
What led you to create Global Abilities?
AJ: Although I was never a great athlete, I played a lot of sports and love being outdoors when I was young. At twenty years old, I had a full-time job working outside as a cable TV installer, I lived on my own, and I trained at a martial arts school six evenings each week. Suddenly, a freak accident during karate practice left me paralyzed, and I feared that my life as an active and independent person was gone forever. Thinking that I was a burden on everyone that I knew, and not believing that I would ever be happy again, I spent almost a decade in deep depression (including a dozen suicide attempts) following my accident.
In 2002, I discovered wheelchair rugby, which is a full-contact sport played by individuals in wheelchairs. I was instantly hooked because of the rough nature of the sport. I soon became a decent rugby player and started participating in skiing, handcycling, scuba diving, and numerous other recreational activities. Recreation helped me become more physically fit and independent, improved my self-esteem, and gave me the confidence to start become more active in my community. With this new motivation, I started volunteering at local hospitals, I started teaching healthcare students and professionals, I returned to school and graduated college, I earned a job, and I bought a house. I also became more socially active, met an amazing woman, and got married!
How is this organization unique?
AJ: I feel that Global Abilities is unique in that we bridge the gap from a person’s success in his/her initial rehab to being successful in the community. The physical rehabilitation to an injury or disability takes weeks or a few months, but the psychological, social, and emotional adjustment can take years. Often, a person does well in her initial rehabilitation in the safety of the hospital, but she then goes home to an environment where she might be the only person with a disability that she knows. This can be a very scary experience, and a time when she needs support the most. But, challenges like depression, low self-esteem, and bitterness are not as easily seen as a physical injury, so these issues can go unnoticed while they eat away at a person from the inside.
Where do you see the organization in 5-10 years?
AJ: Global Abilities has grown steadily since inception in 2011. GAF now manages four main programs, we are active in several states, and we collaborate with organizations across the United States and in several other countries. All this success is due to the hard work of our board of directors and a core group of volunteers. For the next stage in our development, GAF is working on a strategic plan to develop additional consistent funding streams, document our procedures, and hire staff. This will ensure that our programs are sustainable for the long term. Focusing on the nuts and bolts of running a business is not as exciting as developing new recreation programs, but developing a solid foundation is essential to our continuing and expanding our programs.
Did you have role models in mind when forming this organization?
AJ: I could not have started Global Abilities without the support of my wife, Kelly. She is the Vice-President of our board of directors and is very active in our programs. In 2010, Kelly gave me a gift of a small metal globe, and on the base of that globe was an inscription that read:
“Be the change that you want to see in the world”
In my life, and with Global Abilities, I endeavor to live by this motto.
What are some of the challenges and struggles this organization has faced?
AJ: Starting and operating a nonprofit organization is a daunting challenge. The biggest obstacles continue to be securing the funding and people needed to do our work. Now that GAF is more established, we are able to attract more grants and donations, and we routinely attract new volunteers who are impressed with our programs.
Another significant challenge was learning that running a nonprofit is a business, and boring items such as maintaining liability insurance and ordering office supplies are just as important, if not more important, than purchasing new sports equipment or organizing a recreation festival.
I have gained an MBA’s worth of experience starting and growing Global Abilities, and I hope to continue this work for as long as I can.
To learn more about AJ's story and GAF, you can check out their site here.