An Optimal Situation ...
by Doug Smith
"I knew what had happened as soon as I hit the wall" says Allan Tibbels, speaking of his spinal cord injury 16 years ago. The sports loving Youth for Christ worker sped past a basketball goal, collided with the wall, and incurred the injury that made him quadriplegic and makes it necessary for him to use a wheelchair. He was 26 years old.
Allan calls his circumstances after the accident, "an optimal situation." He received prompt treatment from capable shock trauma professionals; then intensive rehabilitation; and finally a welcome back from a willing employer. Workers' compensation benefits cushioned the financial consequences significantly.
He returned to his job less than five months after the injury. Allan says of his incapacity, "I always saw it as temporary."
The response of Allan's wife Susan to his injury and the responses of his family and friends were vital to Allan's quick recovery. From the beginning Susan would speak of the accident as the time "we broke your neck." The couple focused on one step at a time; first on getting Allan out of rehab. Then they faced the next step, and the next, and so on. Susan assured Allan that they would recover from the injury together.
Allan credits Susan and his two daughters for being "totally supportive." He also credits the friends who visited him regularly and treated him the same as they had before the accident. Allan recommends this kind of approach to people who want to support friends with disabilities. "Stay in their lives. They're going to be angry, bitter and not want to have you around. But stay there."
Allan's personal response to the injury was to trust God. That was made easier by a seemingly routine occurrence that preceded the accident. Shortly before the accident Allan wrote down a Bible verse and left it on his desk. The verse was Job 13:15, which says "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him." After the accident, Allan immediately thought of the verse. Knowing that his accident did not surprise God somehow encouraged him, and still does.
Allan will not take credit for his successful recovery, saying: "I don't consider myself any kind of poster boy."
Recovering quickly from his injury wasn't the last remarkable thing Allan did. In 1987 he persuaded Susan that they should move their young family into a deteriorating Baltimore neighborhood called "Sandtown." Joining others, the Tibbels started New Song Community Church -- an interracial church. The New Song congregation founded a job center, clinic, and school. The city recently contracted with the school to instruct neighborhood children. Sandtown's Habitat for Humanity organization -- of which Allan is co-director -- also grew from New Song church.
How did this young man make the successful transition from being an active youth leader, always on his feet, to being an equally effective community leader and encourager who navigates around Sandtown in a wheelchair? Allan says he wouldn't have made it without Christ; he wouldn't have had any reason to try coming back. "I would be either a Christian or a nihilist."
Allan explains his Christian beliefs this way: "God created you; you're His child; and you're still in His care and control. Act on that, and use all you have for serving Him." Also, he stresses, "you don't have to have what you don't have. But you do need to use what you do have."
Allan's preferred activities include reading and "hanging" with people. He loves reading biography. One author he likes is Joni Earickson Tada, a former Baltimore resident who became paralyzed after a diving accident. Joni has written more than 20 books, often illustrating them. She paints the pictures with a paintbrush she holds between her teeth. Joni also does a 5 minute radio spot on 700 stations, and writes for Moody Monthly and Accent on Living magazines among others. "Models are important," Allan maintains. "If I didn't read, I'd be much different."
Hanging with people is Allan's way of interesting them in his evangelistic work. He formerly used basketball as a vehicle for hanging and talking with young people. Now he finds his wheelchair often draws people into conversation.
Allan says the wheelchair is an advantage in Sandtown because it makes him more approachable. There is plenty of pain in the Sandtown community, Allan observes, and Sandtown people confide more readily in someone they know has had pain. Therefore he goes around the neighborhood in his wheelchair instead of his van whenever he can.
Expressing his attitude toward the limitations that remain, Allan concedes: "It's a huge, incredible loss. But overriding is the joy, the optimism, and the perseverance." Winding up the interview Allan paraphrases the anti-war priest Daniel Berrigan: "Keep at it! Dan Berrigan said the hardest thing is to keep at it."
© Doug Smith 1998-2010
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