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Paralysis won't stop Penn Hills man from skateboarding passion

| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 9:28 p.m.
Photo by Six12 Media
Jonathan Stark was paralyzed following a 2009 car accident. Now he is a member of California skating group Team Box.
Submitted photo
Stark drops in on his specially-modified wheelchair, built to withstand the stress of the skate park.
Photo by Stephen Czur
Jonathan Stark of Penn Hills maneuvers his specially-modified wheelchair around a skate-park bowl.
Submitted photo
Jonathan Stark, 23, of Penn Hills has continued exercising his passion for skating in spite of being wheelchair-bound.
Submitted photo
Jonathan Stark, 23, maneuvers his specially-modified wheelchair around a skate park.
Six12 Media
Stark goes airborne. Inspired by the customized wheelchairs of California builder Mike Box, Stark has begun his own customization of wheelchairs in the Pittsburgh area.

Jonathan Stark's life changed forever on Feb. 11, 2009.

He was driving around a bend on Pierson Run Road in Plum when a bad tire on his car caused him to run off the road. He was thrown through the sunroof — he was not wearing a seat belt — breaking his legs and back and shattering his pelvis. Today, Stark is paralyzed from the chest down.

Once a teen who couldn't seem to stay out of trouble and was kicked out of three high schools, today the Penn Hills man says he has a newfound purpose.

“I was fortunate that the accident served as a wake-up call,” said Stark, 23, who was on his way to class at Boyce Campus Middle College, a high school option for at-risk students. “It allowed me to focus on what to do with the rest of my life and make it worthwhile. … I just want to be able to show kids something positive.”

He was a skateboarder and BMX rider in high school, and he still skates today — only now it's in the wheelchair he modified.

One day when he was particularly depressed, one of his therapists showed him a video of skater Aaron Fotheringham.

“Here was this guy doing flips in his wheelchair. I saw the video and immediately saw a door opening up for me,” he said.

Stark is a member of Team Box, a wheelchair skating team that's part of Norco, Calif.-based Box Wheelchairs. The company manufactures custom wheelchairs.

In the course of his therapy, Stark met Paralympic gold medalist Josh Wirt, a member of the Mighty Penguins, a “sled hockey” team comprising wheelchair-bound players. Wirt invited him to play.

“I went out there and, man, it was just the most brutal thing I'd ever seen. Full-contact hockey,” he said.

Stark joined the team and helped bring home third place at the first NHL-sponsored sled hockey tournament at the Pepsi Center in Denver, held in October 2010.

“To be able to do that in my first year in a wheelchair was amazing,” he said.

The boost in Stark's confidence was a far cry from his days at Linton Middle School.

“Penn Hills is no walk-in-the-park type of school district,” Stark said. “And I was a ginger kid with freckles and a gap in my front teeth. I got picked on a lot, and eventually I decided I wasn't going to take it anymore, so I got into a lot of fights. … I wasn't a bad kid, I just did a lot of dumb stuff.”

Stark was expelled from Penn Hills after bringing a pocket-knife to school in his bookbag. He subsequently was kicked out of two additional high schools, returned to Penn Hills “and fell right back into where I was.”

Eventually, Stark was accepted into the Boyce Campus Middle College program, and said he was back on track in 2009 when the crash occurred.

He missed three months of his junior year, underwent six months of outpatient therapy, then missed part of his senior year due to illness. Stark got his diploma from BCMC in 2010.

In the summer of 2011, Stark was invited to the home of Mike Box, owner of Box Wheelchairs. Stark knew that Fotheringham was a member of Team Box and was excited to make the trip.

“Mike Box ultimately asked me to be a part of (Team Box),” he said. “It was really wild — these guys were my heroes and now they want me to be on their team.”

The team gathers for an annual wheelchair-skating competition and clinic, where they work with other wheelchair-bound individuals.

“We show people different things they can do and try to help build their confidence,” Stark said. “That's a big thing to me, because I never had someone to show me that stuff. We like to inspire and show others what they can do.”

Stark began customizing his wheelchair and working to help customize others' as well. He recently joined with Linton Middle School guidance counselor Chris Darsie to speak with students about his experiences and how they've shaped him.

“I just want kids to see that if you want to do something good with your life, that starts now,” Stark said.

He is looking to bring more wheelchair-skating events to the area and even made a guest appearance in the third season of the television series “Glee,” in an episode titled “Big Brother,” in which he can be seen riding his wheelchair around a skate park.

Stark said he has come to terms with his situation.

“It's tough, but I've learned to take the good with the bad, and I really want kids to see that.”

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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