Year in Review: Cherry Hill man’s mission to recover from paralysis captures heart of the community

The Cherry Hill Sun’s July feature on Ryan DiGiovanni’s recovery from complete T10 paralysis was one of the most popular stories of 2016.

In July, the story of about a paralyzed Cherry Hill resident who was determined to walk again captured the hearts of many in the community.

On the night of Jan. 12, 2015, Ryan DiGiovanni, then 18 years old, was driving to a friend’s house in the Quakertown, Pa. area with his girlfriend, Kiana Alvarenga. Reaching a bridge covered in black ice, DiGiovanni lost control of his car. The vehicle went over the side of the bridge and hit a tree. DiGiovanni, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the vehicle. The car landed on top of him, severely injuring his back. Alvarenga died inside the vehicle during the crash.

Following the accident, DiGiovanni was diagnosed as a complete T10 paraplegic, meaning he had no mobility, function or sensation below the belly button. Doctors said he would only have a 1 percent chance of moving the lower half of his body again, let alone walk.

Today, DiGiovanni lives in Cherry Hill. In the nearly two years since his accident, DiGiovanni has already beaten the odds doctors set forth in 2015. Early in 2016, DiGiovanni gained the ability to move his legs in the pool for the first time. By July, DiGiovanni could move his legs from side to side, leg press, crawl and can stand with only his knees blocked.

It wasn’t an easy road, however. In July, the Cherry Hill Sun visited DiGiovanni at Project Walk, a paralysis recovery center in Mt. Laurel. DiGiovanni talked of how life immediately after the accident was very difficult.

At this point, my mindset was ‘My life is over. I’m never going to walk again, so why bother,’” he said. “I was going through a really dark place. Not only did I lose my legs, but I lost my girlfriend at the same time. My world just fell apart in an instant.”

In 2015, DiGiovanni met Carly Jones through a mutual work friend. Jones would be the person who helped DiGiovanni get his rehabilitation on track.

I saw Ryan plateauing in therapy,” Jones said. “He wasn’t getting what he needed. I saw him working out amongst older folks and I thought, ‘He needs more than this.’”

DiGiovanni and Jones discovered Project Walk. After learning the facility would open a new location in Mt. Laurel, Jones was hired as a trainer. One of her first patients was DiGiovanni. Early in 2016, DiGiovanni’s life began to turn around.

At this point, I discovered Buddhism,” he said. “That’s when my mindset changed. I started accepting the way things were as they were and trying to be as happy and content with everything as it was.”

DiGiovanni received big news in September. He was reclassified from ASIA “A” paraplegic to ASIA “C,” two levels above where he was at. The new classification means DiGiovanni chances of standing and walking again have increased from 1 percent to 50 percent.

The story inspired many community members to donate money to help support DiGiovanni’s recovery. Since the launch of the new Cherry Hill Sun website in July, the story on DiGiovanni has been viewed more than any other story.

Other top stories from the month of July:

July 6 — Cherry Hill’s Rachael Goldstein impresses in American Ninja Warrior debut

American Ninja Warrior fans from Cherry Hill had a hometown hero to root for this past summer as Rachael Goldstein, a township resident, appeared on the NBC TV show, “American Ninja Warrior.”

On the show, participants are challenged to conquer a difficult obstacle course testing every muscle in the body. Participants need to go as far as possible in the course in the fastest time possible to advance to the next round.

Goldstein was a first-time participant in the competition, but she had trained regularly at Pinnacle Parkour in Cherry Hill, the Movement Lab in Hainesport and performs regular workouts at Lifetime Fitness in Mt. Laurel.

In the competition, Goldstein made it to the fifth obstacle, Rolling Thunder, before falling off of the course.

It was not easy,” Goldstein said. “It took a lot of moves to be able to get distance for the wheel to roll, and it was heavy. You thought you were moving, but the wheel would only move six inches.”

Goldstein finished within the top-30 in the city preliminary round, allowing her to advance to the city finals, where she was later eliminated from the competition.

July 13 — Cherry Hill community gives outpouring of support to police department after shooting in Dallas

Members of the Cherry Hill community reached out to their local police department to show their support and appreciation for their service in July following a tragic event in Dallas, Texas.

On July 7, five police officers were killed and nine more injured while protecting a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas. The killer, identified as 25-year-old Micah Xavier Johnson, then engaged in a standoff with police. The incident was the deadliest for law enforcement in the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

It shocked us to the core because of how horrific and brutal the attack was on law enforcement,” Cherry Hill Police Chief William Monaghan said.

In the days following the incident, the Cherry Hill Police Department began receiving an outpouring of support from the community. Everything from flowers and desserts to thank you cards and even a light display went up in support of officers from the Cherry Hill Police Department just days after the Dallas shooting.

“I’ve been getting countless letters and cards of supports from both business owners and residents alike,” Monaghan said. “The community has really come together in support of us.”

July 21 — Old Orchard Swim Club celebrates 50th anniversary

The Old Orchard Swim Club celebrated a milestone year in more ways than one in 2016. Throughout the summer, Old Orchard Swim Club celebrated its 50th anniversary. The swim club held a special event commemorating the anniversary in July and many members, past and present, attended the event.

A number of people involved with Old Orchard spoke with the Cherry Hill Sun about the swim club’s history and how it became the center of the neighborhood.

Bob Rueppel, a long-time member who joined the club in the fall of 1966 shortly after the club’s opening on July 4, recalls the fundraising effort necessary to get the club started. In the mid-1960s, John Dell’Aquila chaired a committee who conducted a campaign selling charter membership bonds to Old Orchard’s residents in order to pay for the pool.

They tried to get people to invest in a swim club that didn’t exist,” Rueppel said. “They did an unbelievable job getting people to buy a bond for the club.”

Rueppel also played a role in getting Old Orchard’s swim team started. The swim team would become dominant, winning 14 of 15 Cherry Bowls from 1975 to 1989.

Later on in 2016, Old Orchard would add another chapter to its distinguished history with a team championship at the 2016 Cherry Bowl.

July 26 — Cherry Hill Community meets the newest faces of the police department

A hiring process that began in 2015 with more than 1,000 candidates concluded in late July, as 12 new police officers were sworn-in as the newest members of the Cherry Hill Police Department.

At the event, Cherry Hill Police Chief William Monaghan talked of how each of the officers brought a unique skill set and personality to the department.

We do not hire police officers,” Monaghan said at the swearing-in ceremony. “We hire human beings who want to become police officers.”

Three new officers, Stefanie Short, Joshua Vasquez and Jordan Mayr, sat down with the Cherry Hill Sun and talked about why they joined the Cherry Hill Police Department and what they liked most about the township.