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Paralyzed at 17, Lorenzo Brown Is Founder of Non-Profit for People With Disabilities

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Lorenzo Brown is executive director of the Is-Able Center in Homewood which is dedicated to empowering, educating, and encouraging the disabled community. (Amar Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)
By Je’Don Holloway-Talley
For The Birmingham Times

At 17 years old, Lorenzo Brown was shot in the neck and paralyzed from his chest down. The first time he opened his eyes after being gunned down, he woke to find that he was permanently paralyzed, on life support, and his chances of making it out of the hospital alive were slim.
“When I awoke for the first time, the doctor was standing right over me. He looked me in my eyes and asked, ‘Do you know what’s wrong with you?’ … [Then] he said, ‘I’m afraid you’re going to be paralyzed for the rest of your life. You’ll never walk again, talk again. As a matter of fact, you’re going to be a vegetable for the rest of your life.’ … Tears started rolling down my face,” said Brown, who has quadriplegia … a form of paralysis that affects all four limbs, plus the torso.

Quality Of Life

Now age 47, Brown is executive director of the Is-Able Center, which he operates with five payroll employees and three volunteers, who serve as employment specialists, including his wife of 17 years, Amy Brown, and center assistants. The center is dedicated to empowering, educating and encouraging people in the disability community.

“We took the d’s out of disabled, [and] we are The Is-Able Center. Our mission is to enhance the quality of life of individuals with disabilities, their loved ones, and their caregivers. Our aim is to equip them with tools, resources, and information so that they can live more independent lives,” Brown said of the center, which opened in 2017.

The IS-Able Center, located in Homewood at 244 West Valley Ave., Suite 206, operates five days a week and provides job readiness, computer and self-advocacy training, life skills, and depression and grief support groups.

The center also does outreach programming in Birmingham-area high schools, including at Arthur Harold Parker “A.H.” Parker, George W. Carver, and Minor high schools, all part of Birmingham City Schools.

“Our services are specific to those with special needs,” said Brown, adding that the center has served 56 students this year, offering the same programming that’s available at the center in Homewood.

All services provided by The IS-Able Center are free. “That makes a huge impact on the community,” said the director. “For people to be able to have access to services and not have to bear the burden of how they are going to pay for them is huge. … To also be able to come into an atmosphere where they are loved, appreciated, and respected is bigger. We treat them like they’re doing us a service, and we thank them for coming.”

The IS-Able Center also has job placement partnerships with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Hospital Services and Sodexo, a food and facilities management company, with which Brown has had contracts with for years.

In fact, the center has placed hundreds on UAB’s college campus, he said: “So far this year, our employment program has serviced about 68 referrals and about 200 individuals [overall].”

The Marion, Alabama, native never attended high school but earned a General Education Development (GED) diploma in 1998 and then went on to attend UAB, where he studied business finance for two years before leaving in 2000 to pursue his call in the ministry.

In 2002, he began apprenticing under Bishop Steve Franklin of Covenant Heirs International Church in Birmingham and was ordained as a minister in 2004.

On the spiritual side, Brown has authored several books, including “31 Principles for Daily Living: 31-Day Devotional and Journal” and “Moments of Inspiration: 52-Week Devotional and Journal.” He also speaks and works with various organizations, programs, and services to serve people with disabilities.

Brown especially has a heart for those suffering from depression and grief and would often host support group meetings because of what he had been through.

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A Mother’s Love

He remembers a very rough childhood.

“My dad wasn’t part of my life, and my mother was an alcoholic and addicted to crack cocaine,” he said, recalling his years growing up with his two brothers. “There were times we didn’t have running water, working appliances, lights, or heat, which led to me having a pretty hard heart and mentality. I was out in the streets doing a lot of things to survive: [selling drugs, breaking into cars, and stealing from stores]. The streets are [part of] the reason I became a teenage father. … I got involved in a lot of things that a child with a normal upbringing wouldn’t have gotten involved in.”

The night he was shot, Brown recalled walking out from between two trailers and bumping into a guy whose hat had fallen off.

“I bent down to pick it up, and the guy started mouthing off at me,” Brown said. “At that time, I was a hotheaded 17-year-old, and I thought it was a big deal when somebody would mouth off at me. … We got into an argument, and I left with the guy’s hat. An hour-and-a-half later, he and another guy came back and did a drive-by shooting. The bullet went in through the front of my neck, [struck] my spinal cord, and instantly paralyzed me.”

Brown was taken to a hospital in serious condition, and his mother, who was inebriated that night, was told by a doctor that she should pull the plug.

“She was drunk and high on crack, and she told the doctor, ‘I don’t care how he has to live. I’m not pulling the plug on my son’s life.’ So, I thank God for a mother’s love,” Brown said. “A mother’s love is so strong that even crack cocaine and alcohol can’t overpower it.”

Living conditions at Brown’s home were still dire when he returned. “I came home to the same situation—no running water, no working appliances, no heat. We only had electricity, so my mother put a single-eye hot plate up in my bedroom and a blanket under the door, [and that] served as my heater.

“We cooked on [the hot plate], we sterilized my catheters on it. My brothers would carry buckets of water from the next-door neighbor’s house and [use that hot plate to] heat it. My 12-year-old brother was my primary caregiver.”

Brown said his mother has been clean since April 2004, and she is part of his life. She comes to his home every day to help him get ready for the day.

Recovery

A year after becoming paralyzed, Brown’s family’s inability to care for him led him to a nursing home in his rural hometown of Marion.

“I stayed in two different nursing homes for a total of two years, three months, and five days. The whole time I was there, I never got one visit from a family member. I was totally abandoned,” said Brown, who made a note of when he went into the nursing home (March 16, 1995) and his last day there (June 22, 1997)—a Sunday, he recalled.

“I literally thought I would die there,” he added. “At 19 years old, I thought I would live out my life alone in a home.”

That was until a visiting nursing instructor called and asked Brown, “If you ever had the chance to change your life, what would you do with it?”

“Then she asked me what I was going to do about getting out of there,” Brown said. “That thought had never crossed my mind.”

After he left the home, a series of interventions, media attention, and speaking engagements led to Brown getting aid from the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation (ADR), which helped him with a move to a transitional living facility in Birmingham in 1997. There he met his best friend—the late David Bailey, who died of health complications in October 2010—and they conceived the idea of the IS-Able organization out of desperation and despair.

“We were literally about to kill ourselves when we came up with the idea,” Brown said. “[Bailey had quadriplegia] and was paralyzed just like me. He had been paralyzed for almost 30 years, and he knew a lot. We became best friends, and we were both struggling with depression. One day, [he and I] started discussing ways that [someone with quadriplegia] could commit suicide.

“We said, ‘We’ll blow our brains out,’ but neither one of us could pick up the gun and pull the trigger. We said, ‘Well, we’re going to cut our wrists,’ but we couldn’t pick up the razor blade. So, we said, ‘We’ll take a bottle of pills,’ but we couldn’t take the top off the bottle. Then we said, ‘We’re going to jump off a building,’ but then we said, ‘How are we going to get to the top of the building? And even if we do, ‘How are we going to get over the edge?”’

Eventually, they came up with an idea that they thought would work, Brown said.

“We used to sit around a pool at an apartment complex next door to the facility we were in. … We could roll our wheelchairs into the deep end of that swimming pool and drown ourselves. All we needed was for our caregivers to buckle our seatbelts in our chairs so we could sink to the bottom. We put our plan together. We woke up the next day, met up outside, and were on our way to go drown ourselves.”

Moments before following through, Brown recalled Bailey speaking up.

“He turned to me and asked, ‘Why hasn’t anybody ever told us about different programs and services [that could help us] before we even got to this point?’ I said, ‘Man, I don’t know, but we need to do something about it. We need to call the president, the governor, or the mayor. … We need to tell somebody.’ Right then, a lightbulb went off in my head. I turned to [Bailey] and said, ‘Let’s start some type of nonprofit organization.’

“As soon as a purpose was discovered, the desire to live was restored,” said Brown.

“Full Circle”

The very same day, Brown and Bailey set out for the Homewood Library to begin their research. “We were in our wheelchairs and didn’t have any idea where the library was,” Brown said. “We traveled about four miles by wheelchair.”

Later that night, Brown had an epiphany: “The Lord told me, ‘You’re taking the d’s out of disabled. The name of your organization is The IS-Able [Foundation],” Brown recalled.

The next morning, he shared the epiphany with Bailey, and their organization was formed in 1998.

“At that time, we primarily provided information and referrals,” Brown said. “We would go and see people in the hospital when they were first injured and share information about how they could get medical equipment, wheelchair ramps, home health services, and financial assistance for things they may need.”

The Is-Able Center has come a long way. Nearly 20 years after the ADR moved Brown to Birmingham and helped him get his own apartment and a vehicle, he could operate himself, the IS-Able nonprofit formed a partnership with Alabama Department of Rehabilitation (ADR) in 2017.

“It came full circle,” said Brown. “Who does The IS-Able Center have a contract with? The ADR. I went from being a client to being one of their service providers.”

In October, Brown spoke before the National Coalition of State Rehabilitation Councils and the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation as the keynote speaker for the progression of the quality of life for people in the disability community.

“A Blessing”

Future plans for the IS-Able organization include opening a transitional living facility similar to the one that changed Brown’s life.

“That facility was a game-changer in my life,” he said. “With a transitional living facility, we would bring in people who are injured, train them, and give them the same services offered at our center.”

“People in other states or rural communities would live at the facility for 30 to 90 days, and we’d provide them with those services, as well as physical therapy and occupational therapy to equip them to live an independent life,” said Brown, adding that strategic plans are underway to open the transitional living facility, which he hopes to open in two years.

Brown, a father of four—daughter, Marilyn, 29; twin sons, Isaac and Isaiah, 13; and his youngest son, Jeremiah, 6—looks back on his life before he found resources and says the memories have not faded.

He considers being shot “a blessing.”

“If someone can say that being shot and becoming paralyzed is a blessing, that goes to show you they had a pretty rough life before that,” said Brown. “This led to me having a better life and becoming a better man. When I look in the mirror now, I like the man that I see. This was a blessing in disguise.

He added, “If I had to go back and live my journey all over again, even becoming paralyzed, if it’s going to lead to being the man I am today and living the purpose I live now, I’d do it all over again.”

The IS-Able Center is located at 244 West Valley Ave., Suite 206, Homewood, AL 35209. To learn more about the center, call 205-777-4017; email isablecenter@gmail.com; or visit www.isable.org, Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/isablecenter), or Instagram (@isablecenter).