For Mississippi native Kirk Thomas, one date is etched in his mind forever-November 27, 1992.
As he was heading back to his truck following a morning deer hunt, a falling tree struck him and sent the 6-foot 5-inch, 321-pound former college football player hurling through the air. When Thomas landed, he was lying face up on the ground with a crushed back and a multitude of internal injuries. After an operation, hospital stay and rehabilitation, at the age of 33, Thomas was facing life as a T-12 paraplegic requiring the use of a wheelchair the rest of his life.
Thomas didn’t stay down long. “I had a family to take care of and to do this it meant I had to get my butt back to work selling heavy equipment. I never felt sorry for myself, I didn’t have time to. Besides, there was no way I was going to let my disability rob me of life. Quite frankly, I never quit working. I learned how to climb in my truck so I could start driving and get back to work. The way I saw it was simple, I was still alive, I still had the same responsibilities, I had a life to live and it was up to me to accept the responsibility to make the most of it. I chose to see and meet every challenge as an opportunity and most importantly as a blessing”, said Thomas.
In 1996, a renewed approach to life, combined with his love of the outdoors, led Thomas to create Wheelin’ Sportsmen of America, an organization that hosted disabled people at fishing and hunting events by pairing able-bodied volunteers to assist them. The efforts of Wheelin’ Sportsmen and Thomas began to be recognized nationwide. It wasn’t long before he began speaking all across the country in an effort to promote Wheelin’ Sportsmen and recreational opportunities for disabled people. Wheelin’ Sportsmen became an official outreach program of the NWTF. “The merger between Wheelin’ Sportsmen and the Federation was an awesome opportunity for both organizations” Thomas said.
“I have always thought that God had a plan for us all but for me; however, He presented me with the opportunity, desire and passion to help people and give back to others. This became my desire and mission that I live every day. There is nothing I enjoy more than seeing people who never thought they could get outside and participate in an activity, receive the opportunity to do so. When my accident happened, I was one of the blessed ones; I had friends and family that made sure I got the opportunity to continue my love of the outdoors. After my accident I was asked to become a member of the AL Independent Living Council, which I did. When I was around other disabled individuals it didn’t take long to find out how many barriers disabled people face when it comes to doing anything, much less participating in outdoor activities. I’ve always looked at what I do as a way to give back for all the support I received. I’ve dedicated my life to helping disabled people as a way to say thanks for the support I received. This is a part of me and it’s in my soul. As a matter of fact, I believe it’s why I sit in this chair every day. It’s hard for some people to understand but, I have always seen my disability as a blessing and a gift from God. I wouldn’t change my disability or what I’ve gone through over the years for anything,” said Thomas.
Thomas quickly became known as a well-respected leader in the outdoor world, winning numerous awards and honors for his work on behalf of people with disabilities. Thomas has testified before Congress concerning outdoor accessible recreation for disabled individuals. He has chaired numerous hearings to open up new opportunities for disabled sportsmen. A powerful motivational speaker, Thomas is asked to speak all over the country sharing his story of determination, triumph and success.
Thomas’ life changed again July 2nd. 2008 when Thomas made the decision to tender his resignation as the Wheelin’ Sportsmen NWTF leader. Thomas said, “Making the decision to leave the Wheelin’ program was very hard, but the decision became clear and easy to me when my heart told me it was time. Wheelin’ Sportsmen had been my life for a very long time. It was a vision and a dream. I witnessed its growth, and saw it help a lot of folks over the years. The Wheelin’ program will always be special to me but another new and powerful dream was leading me in a different direction.”
Thomas began focusing his efforts toward his new dream “Outdoors Without Limits” in 2008. Thomas serves as its Executive Director/Founder. “I am extremely excited about the future of OWL. We are making a tremendous difference in the lives of a lot of folks, disabled, non-disabled, volunteers and our partners. Developing OWL has put breath back in me. It takes a tremendous amount of hard work, but somehow it gets done” said Thomas.
The organization’s design is unique but simple. It’s all about building community-based chapters. “Chapters have the opportunity to focus their attention and efforts on providing disabled individuals opportunities within their own communities. We’re totally inclusive and we encourage everyone to get involved disabled or non-disabled. We take pride in allowing membership to be elective. We don’t want the dollar to interfere with participation. While raising revenue is extremely important and needed, you can’t allow it to negate participation especially when it comes to disabled participants who have never had the opportunity to try it. OWL has one simple and direct mission which is to provide opportunity. If we put the dollar in front of this opportunity we not only fail our mission but we fail the people we’re trying to serve. It doesn’t matter what kind of disability a person has or doesn’t have and age doesn’t play a factor.
Thomas surrounds himself with great volunteers, many of which have worked with him since his early days. Some of these individuals have years of experience coordinating events and acting as advocates for people with disabilities. “Outdoors Without Limits is a volunteer-dependent organization. There is no question of the fact that our volunteers have always and continue to play a key role in our success. There would not be an OWL organization without them. I couldn’t be more proud to have the help we receive. Volunteers are my heroes and they are the rubber that hit’s the road. OWL is successful because of the efforts of its volunteers. Outdoors Without Limits volunteers are life-changers and life-savers”, said Thomas.
All in all, as an organization, we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. We’re going to stay the course and concentrate on accomplishing our mission in order to continue changing and saving as many lives as we can”, said Thomas.