Editor’s Note: Ralph’s Riders was launched over 10 years ago by Mayra Fornos in the memory of her late husband, Ralph, who sustained a spinal cord injury while surfing. The foundation has been dedicated to helping people with mobility impairments lead independent, healthy lives ever since. Wheel:Life writer Betsy Bailey talked with the president of the nonprofit, Carlos Benavides, and board member Ray Pizarro about their stories, their involvement with the organization, and how they serve as mentors in both formal and informal settings.
For more information on how Ralph’s Riders came about, read Love Really Does Conquer All: How Ralph and Mayra Fornos Turned Tragedy into Triumph.
Can you guys tell me a little bit about yourselves?
Ray: I had a diving accident back in 1993 and sustained a cervical injury that left me a level C5-6 quadriplegic. I did my rehab at Long Beach Memorial and Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Hospital. After a few years of depression and anger, I finally began moving forward and started integrating into the community by attending support groups. I eventually landed my first job for a medical supply company which led to driving again and getting married.
I decided to give back to the community by volunteering as a peer mentor through KnowBarriers at Rancho Los Amigos and also with the Ralph’s Riders Foundation. I do one-on-one mentoring with patients who are newly injured and am also part of the Rancho Los Amigos patient advisory council. We’re advocates for the patients and try to help them in any way we can to find solutions for the issues they’re having. We want to make their experience as good as possible while they’re at the hospital. I then connect them with Ralph’s Riders Foundation resources and activities.
I’ve also sat on a couple of ADA boards for the Los Angeles County Commission on Disabilities. In 2008, I founded Pushrim as a social networking site for people with spinal cord injury and mobility impairments. In 2014, we converted it into a nonprofit so it could be self-sustaining.
Carlos: I’m a C2 to a T1 tetraplegic. Like Ray, I’m a peer mentor through KnowBarriers at Rancho Los Amigos and co-chair the patient advisory council. I am also one of the artists at the hospital. Outside of Rancho, I’m the president of the Los Angeles County Commission on Disabilities. I’m also the president of Pushrim Foundation and Ralph’s Riders. I sit on a few other boards and am the vice president of SCILC board of directors.
It sounds like you two do a lot together! How long have you known each other?
Carlos: If you see one of us at Rancho, you’ll see the other. They call us Batman and Robin and the Dynamic Duo here.
We met about seven or eight years ago, but spiritually, we’ve known each other our whole lives.
How did you get involved with Ralph’s Riders?
Carlos: We’ve known Mayra for a while, and she helped us with Pushrim when we first started out. Recently, we decided to form an alliance because Ralph’s Riders and Pushrim have similar goals.
If we can bring other nonprofits together that serve the same community, we become a village instead of just a small group. We become stronger.
Our alliance has since grown to over eleven businesses and organizations which all have the same vision: to provide guidance and resources to individuals that help ease the challenges of transitioning into a new life as a wheelchair user or a person with mobility impairments.
Carlos, you’re the president of Ralph’s Riders. Can you tell me what that entails?
Carlos: To be honest with you, I look at it as a title because if it weren’t for the rest of the team, it wouldn’t work. One person can’t do anything.
Ray, what’s your role with Ralph’s Riders?
Ray: I sit on the board and give my two cents when we have new projects. I also participate in outreach and other duties that need to get done for any upcoming projects.
What are the future goals for Ralph’s Riders?
Carlos: We are currently working on an Abilities Arts Show Fundraiser which will exhibit work by artists who are disabled giving them exposure and an opportunity to sell their creations. Funds raised at this event will benefit our scholarship program as well as the artists. We are also seeking sponsors to help us continue offering assistance to individuals with SCI and mobility issues to cover costs for things such as hand controls in their vehicle or repairs to their wheelchair.
Ray: We have a really great program called Law & Resource Day which offers information about legal rights for victims of personal injury cases or ADA violations. Attendees also have the opportunity to ask any legal questions they may have. We’d like to establish a steady schedule for these workshops and bring them to more rehabilitation centers to make sure people with disabilities are aware of their rights. Our Law & Resource Days are hosted by Fornos Law Firm, and we partner with AbleThrive and other speakers in the community.
These are fun networking events that also offer the opportunity for Riders to get together and make new friends.
You’re both involved with peer mentoring. Can you talk about why that’s important to you?
Ray: When someone is being mentored, they get a lot out of seeing is believing and following by example. It helps change the vision of what someone believes is possible after a catastrophic injury. I am the perfect example. When I got injured, I thought I’d never be able to drive again. Then, I ran across a person with my level of injury and saw him jump in his van and drive away. That just blew my mind, and I saw that, yes, it’s possible for me to drive again one day. It gave me a goal to achieve.
Although we do a lot of peer mentoring through formal programs such as Ralph’s Riders and KnowBarriers, it can also be done informally.
We mentor all the time, not only to patients and family members, but also to people of the public.
When someone asks us out of curiosity why we’re in a chair, we thrive on it because we can give them a crash course about our injury and maybe touch upon some etiquette and sensitivity training at the same time.
Carlos: As advocates, Ray and I believe that there are only two types of people in this world. There are people who are disabled and there are TABs. A TAB is a temporarily able-bodied person. Either by age, illness, or an accident, we’re all going to end up using a wheelchair or other mobility device. Our goal is that by the time you or a family member transitions there, we’ve made it easier for you to overcome your challenges.
We’re not doing this for us, we’re doing it for the younger generations.
We are always looking for volunteers to help grow our Ralph’s Riders programs which are open to anyone who needs a little extra help transitioning or identifying their new direction in life as a roller. If you’re ready to get back into the real world, get a hold of Ralph’s Riders, and we’ll help you.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with Wheel:Life readers?
Carlos: It’s important to stay socially and physically active. Ralph’s Riders Foundation has plenty of resources to keep people moving and motivated. Follow us on social media and check out our website to hear about upcoming events and ways you can get involved.
Ray: We are really humbled by the opportunity to partner with Wheel:Life and share our stories. We strongly believe that we can inspire and motivate people through the things we are doing as individuals and as an organization.
We want to be good advocates and the voice of hope for those in need.
This article was updated on May 30, 2019.
About the Author
Betsy Bailey has a diverse background that includes experience in marketing research, business operations, travel and culinary writing, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.
Betsy has been writing for Wheel:Life since January of 2017 and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. She also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!