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“Our society is celebrity driven. What is often overlooked are the quiet everyday heroes who work day-in and day-out, extending their fullest humanity to others in need, and these are the stories that need to be told. That’s what makes the world a better place.”

Reji Mathew, PhD, LCSW, said so well what many of us have been feeling these days, especially after nearly two years of unrelenting stress brought on by the global pandemic. As restrictions now finally begin to ease, we’re collectively at a critical crossroad: Will we each simply return to that same old life we had before or will we thoughtfully use this interruption of the mundane to perhaps change course for a more fulfilling future for ourselves and our communities?

People who contemplate questions such as these, and live exemplary lives, are the shining examples to us all. Enter Reji, a professor and mental health educator at NYU in New York City, an integrative social work psychotherapist, an expressive arts advocate, a digital artist, and a narrative journalist. Her work expands minds and opens hearts, as she focuses on human-interest issues that address health recovery, the arts, and resiliency. She’s someone who truly makes a difference in our world. Let’s get to know her a bit better…

Transitioning in the Shadow of Trauma

We were fortunate to meet Reji when she came to Bussani Mobility recently needing help with an accessible vehicle. She has had a neuromuscular disability since childhood. She had been driving for about 20 years using hand controls in her vehicle. As her condition progressed, she transitioned to a motorized wheelchair and found herself suddenly needing a fully adapted van.

“People typically go through these transitions in the shadow of a traumatic event or medical change, unless they were disabled from childhood,” Reji said. “When my condition progressed, I had to transition to a wheelchair overnight. The abrupt transition left me with only the option of taking a wheelchair transport service from Rockland County to and from campus in New York City, which I could only afford a few times a year. I was fully ambulatory in the city, but did not have the same independence in Rockland. Because my van was not adapted, I didn’t have my own independence anymore.”

Now, Reji drives a 2020 Honda Odyssey with adaptations. She purchased the van, and the technicians at Bussani Mobility’s auto shop implemented a full conversion, installed a wheelchair ramp, and fitted her with advanced hand controls.

Reji drives her Menox hand-controlled, adapted van to the bus stop in Rockland County and takes the bus to New York City. Driving from Rockland all the way to the NYU campus and back is too demanding for her, so this is the solution that works best.

“Not only can I travel back and forth to campus, but I also have my independence back in the county, and my independent life has been restored,” Reji said.

It Takes a Village

When Reji realized that she suddenly needed an adaptive van, she was distraught because she did not have the finances to purchase a fully loaded van. She explained: “Bussani came to the rescue. From the moment I called, I received exceptional care and mobility guidance. Jordan [a mobility specialist] explained the whole process, how to get funding, and how other customers found solutions in similar circumstances like mine.

“Funding took a village; I had to take another teaching job, and got partial funding through ACCES-VR, held a small fundraiser through my art, and it all came together. I would not have known how to tackle the financial challenges of van mobility adaption without the framework Jordan took the time to review with me on how to approach this.

“Once the van came in, the Bussani Mobility team brought me back and forth to the mobility center five different times to adapt the van, make changes to the ramp, and tweak the hand controls. This process of tweaking the mobility equipment to your level of ability is critical, especially when it comes to neuromuscular weakness. Safety was key to them, and I felt so cared for and supported and was amazed with the level of experience of the mobility technicians.”

Reji really made our day when she told us that she “had never worked with a place where I was treated with such humanity, where they heard my story, cared, made the commitment, and solved all the problems that arose. Through the whole process, I had to pinch myself, since I was not used to receiving such exceptional care. Unfortunately, when you have been a person with long-term health care needs, engaging with ‘the system’ is so challenging. Bussani Mobility of Westchester is a model of exceptional care for the disability community. To know that I will have the center, and it will be a reliable life-long relationship, is such a relief. I am so grateful.”

Reji said that we are quiet everyday heroes. And we are so moved by her words. But what we most want her to know is that, to us, she is the everyday hero, so generously offering her gifts, words, kindness, and inspiration to others as a teacher, activist and artist.

When we asked Reji what advice she had for other people who are living with a physical disability and may need driver rehabilitation services, she said: “Know that this transition is a process, and it does take a village. Build relationships with people that leave you feeling safe and respected. Trust yourself. Ask yourself, ‘Am I being treated with the respect and dignity I deserve?’”

Live Out Your Potential

Another of the central concepts in Reji’s life work is accessing the arts as a multi-sensory processing tool for problem-solving, self-expansion, and personal growth. Expressive art therapies help use the arts as a basis for discovery and change.

Some of Reji’s digital art, a multi-sensory processing tool she uses for problem-solving, self-expansion, and personal growth.

She shared: “Everyone in society gains when each person finds their place and lives out their full potential. We are all meant to be equal and contributing members of society. Now that I’m back to having mobility, I am able to contribute fully to my community. And accessibility is a critical part of a framework of universal design.”

When we think of the people that Reji touches in her daily work, we’re proud that we played a part in helping her solve her mobility challenges and live an independent life. We say back to you, Reji, “100 thanks” for all you do.

To find out more about Reji’s artivism (where art and activism meet) – and to experience her digital artwork, expressive arts workshops, and writings – visit her website at https://www.rejimathewphd-writer.com/about.html.