Sabrina Cohen turned tragedy into triumph by starting a foundation that has made it possible for people with disabilities to enjoy the beach.
Sabrina Cohen at Allison Park on Miami Beach, in one of the water-resistant, beach-ready wheelchairs that allow people with mobility issues like her to get close to the water.
Twenty-two years ago, six Miami teenagers loaded into two cars and decided to drag race down Alton Road. In the ensuing crash, five of the six kids walked away unharmed, but Sabrina Cohen, a “healthy, athletic, and normal” 14-year-old girl, was left paralyzed from the neck down. “I can vaguely remember that perhaps I didn’t think it was cool to put a seat belt on,” Cohen explains of the accident. “I wasn’t a bad kid. I was a great kid, very studious. I was just a teenager.”
After the accident, Cohen says, “My image was shattered... I saw other people in wheelchairs and it hit me that it was a reflection of me. The hardest part was being in high school with a full-time nurse who was pushing me around and had to take care of me.” Cohen underwent numerous surgeries and three months of rehab before returning to school, where she was asked to speak to a group of elementary school children. “Right away I realized—even though at first I didn’t want it to be my mission in life—that if my story could help other people be safe and think about the decisions they make in their life, then it gives you purpose.”
In 2006, Cohen launched the Sabrina Cohen Foundation. Initially, her focus was on science and treatment, but she soon found her efforts would be better spent working to enhance the existing lives of those affected. “I look at treatment and technology as ways that can improve a life [instead of] me waiting to run a marathon one day,” she says. Now, the foundation funds medical research and quality-of-life programs that help people with paralysis and disabilities live a fuller life.
The foundation’s largest undertaking to date is a partnership with the City of Miami Beach, which encompasses a number of initiatives that will allow disabled and paralyzed individuals to enjoy the same perks of living in South Florida as everyone else. One element of the project will include a “one-of-a-kind, accessible hub of activities” for those with disabilities, including a playground, outdoor fitness area with hand cycling and yoga, and most importantly, special technology that allows people with mobility issues to get closer to the water, like water-resistant beach-ready wheelchairs that can easily traverse the sand and elements, currently planned at Allison Park on 64th Street and Collins Avenue.
In addition to the structure itself, the foundation is creating suitable programming such as adaptive surfing, snorkeling and scuba, meditation, and art therapy. “That element of physical activity and the desire to stay healthy never leaves a person,” says Cohen. And for Cohen, the mission has already been life changing. “Because of this project, I got in the [ocean] for the first time in 22 years,” she says.
Outdoor fitness and activities can be accessible to everyone, says Cohen (center, in the blue jacket), here doing chair yoga on the beach with Ela Patricia Garcia, Chris Holcomb, Gustavo Rohrscheib Buseth, Alberto Perez, Ivanna Brown, Allan Biggs Williams, Alan Brown, and Christopher Robertson
Another goal of the beach project is to spread the message of inclusion—the special wood polymer decking planned will allow ramp access for strollers, coolers, bicycles, and more. “Whether it’s seniors, children, veterans, or adults with disabilities, visitors can come to Miami and have a place to go and experience outdoor activities,” says Cohen of the project, which is moving forward so quickly that it may set the stage for a global prototype. “I have been getting messages from people all over the world about traveling to South Florida to come to our beach and experience this and use it as a template to then develop in other cities.”
Cohen attributes her success to positive thinking. “Peace of mind and acceptance of oneself is probably at the core to anybody living a healthy and active lifestyle,” she explains. “I’ve come a long way to realize that.”
Add to that a changing social landscape (“Society is moving towards more acceptance of everybody—gay rights, disabilities, civil rights; we should all accept one another for the way we are”) and Cohen’s love for Miami, and her motivation, stays strong. “To be an advocate for beach and fitness in my hometown is pretty amazing.” To volunteer, make a donation, or receive more information on the Sabrina Cohen Foundation, click here.