One step at a time toward progress

Mt. Laurel’s Project Walk offers hope to people around the world

Madeleine Maccar The Sun: Mt. Laurel Police Department’s Community Policing Dog Drake, who frequently visits Project Walk and the clients the paralysis recovery center serves, waits for a command from MLPD Officer Kyle Gardner.

A little more than five years ago, township resident Leslie Clark closed the chapter on 25 years of driving school buses for the Mt. Laurel School District and was ready to begin her next adventure.

She wanted to make a difference and, after a little research, settled on bringing Project Walk to the town she’d called home since childhood, despite initial findings that left her  questioning whether or not she was emotionally prepared to help people whose neurological damage or spinal cord injuries left them with grim predictions about regaining their mobility.

“I was so afraid it would be depressing,” Clark admitted. “These are people whose doctors told them they would never walk again.”

Instead, she is inspired every day by the physical progress and strengthening resolve in the clients she sees, some who’ve been coming to Project Walk since it opened its doors.

“It’s so fulfilling,” Clark said.

On a mid-January afternoon, she motioned to the clients and recovery specialists at a variety of stations, as laughter, music and the Mt. Laurel Police Department’s Community Policing Dog Drake all filled the brightly colored treatment center with life.

Project Walk, according to Clark, steps in when insurance runs out. She and her team’s clients range from children with cerebral palsy, veterans injured in the line of duty, young adults who sustained spinal cord damage in accidents that changed their lives forever in a split second — anyone clawing their way back from paralysis and mobility-related disorders through dedicated use of specialized equipment and at-home exercises.

Clark said Mt. Laurel’s Project Walk is only the second of its kind on the East Coast, though it draws regulars from not only the New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York tri-state area but also from around the world.

“We get people coming here from Germany, Norway and the country of Georgia,” Clark explained.

The Project Walk team comprises recovery specialists, assistants and aides whose four-year degrees in fitness and health specializations serve as the foundations for their additional certifications. The specialists help Project Walk’s clients on the long journeys to regain balance, physical sensations, strength and autonomy, one victorious step at a time. Milestones are celebrated as a group and emblazoned on a wall-size chalkboard covered in brightly colored and tightly spaced proclamations of progress.

But Project Walk isn’t a medical facility for healing injuries, and Clark admits it can’t guarantee success in helping everyone walk again, especially since everyone who comes to them has different needs and goals. The team, instead, helps clients retrain their bodies to make new neurological connections while offering them a safe and secure place to reclaim as much of their autonomy as possible.

Clark is frank about the hard work that goes into each achievement, acknowledging that a traumatic injury and lifelong mobility issues take not just a physical toll but an emotional one, too.

“When someone’s paralyzed, it changes their entire life,” she reflected. “Their hopes and dreams are dashed. And then there’s the cost of accessibility, starting with the modifications they have to make to their own homes.”

And with insurance often running out well before significant progress is made, Project Walk offers a welcoming facility that provides ongoing physical therapy — and a support network of individuals from all walks of life whose bonds are built on understanding one another’s struggles and successes better than anyone else.

“Before COVID, we’d all go out a couple times a year as a big group,” Clark said. “I’d reserve a room somewhere and we’d all go out to dinner for the night.”

The Project Walk community extends far beyond its blue and yellow walls emblazoned with inspirational photos and phrases. With many clients paying for Project Walk’s assistance out of pocket, fundraisers to absorb some of those costs play a big part in helping neighbors become supporters.

The community offers moral support, too. Police officer Kyle Gardner is a longtime family friend of Clark who brings Drake, one of the department’s four K9 unit members, to Project Walk whenever he can.

Drake, a former hunting dog, is a friendly 3-year-old Labrador retriever the department brought in as a more approachable alternative to law enforcement’s typical German shepherds. His role is to connect with the community when he’s not searching for missing people or sniffing out drugs.

While a few Project Walk clients are apprehensive about or allergic to dogs, most welcome Drake as an unofficial emotional support dog and encouraging visitor.

“Drake loves coming here,” Gardner said. “I always call ahead before we come over, so everyone is always happy to see him, too.”

After five years and despite the pandemic, Clark feels like Project Walk is ready to grow: COVID regulations and her current space limit it to four trainers working with four clients at a time in the current space on Fellowship Road, and Clark wants to keep helping as many people as she can.

“I found my calling,” she noted. “I want people to know there’s hope, and I want them to know we’re here.”

Visit projectwalknj.com for more information.