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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Riders tell amputees to hop back on life's cycle
The traveling advocates cross the country with a message of hope.
By CHANDRA BROADWATER
Published July 19, 2007
Tom Pepe of Brooksville is applauded Wednesday at HealthSouth Rehabilitation as he rides with Amputees Across America members, who travel to encourage other amputees.
[Danny Ghitis | Times]
SPRING HILL - Allen Howard lifted arm weights as he listened. In recovery from a recent hip replacement surgery, the 81-year-old Brooksville resident kept pumping his arms at one of many machines in the therapy room at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Center.
Most of the other patients in the large open space stopped what they were doing to focus on the men standing with prosthetic legs in front of them.
On their cross-country trip that began three months ago in California, the Amputees Across America bicycled into Spring Hill on Tuesday and on Wednesday visited the rehab center. Since 2002, the group has toured the country raising awareness for amputees while bringing messages of inspiration for everyone they meet.
"I was faced with the choice to get my life back," said group founder Joe Sapere. "If I hadn't lost my leg, I wouldn't be the person I am today. I'd probably be in jail or something like that."
The 66-year-old formed the amputee group after suffering a below-knee amputation on his left leg in 2000. A skydiving accident that year left the retired Air Force colonel wondering how to fit the pieces of his active lifestyle back together.
He did that by creating Amputees Across America. With HealthSouth as a sponsor, each year he rides with a crew of varying size on the coast-to-coast trip. Along the way, they chronicle their adventures online.
This year, three riders rolled into Spring Hill. Along with Sapere, were Abel Cruz, 55, and Clifford Clark, 60. Both have also had left-leg amputations.
"We're ordinary people getting on with our lives," Sapere said. "I don't think the police radar can even register the slow pace we ride. But it's like this: You can get better, or get bitter."
In the next decade, Sapere said that about 3.8-million people would be living as amputees in the United States, mostly because of diabetes. Currently, there are about 1.9-million amputees in the country.
Wednesday's visit marked the group's second to Spring Hill. They came last year en route to St. Petersburg, where they will also go through Thursday for a visit to a HealthSouth center in Largo on Friday.
After a stop in Sarasota, the amputees will bike to their final destination in Vero Beach.
When it's all over next Wednesday, they will have traveled 3,500 miles, visited 32 rehab facilities and two Shriners Hospitals for Children. They also will have parachuted several times from altitudes totaling more than 10 miles in honor of amputees they've met.
For Howard, the 81-year-old who just had his hip replaced, hearing Sapere and the others was just what he needed.
"Sometimes it's easy to put your heels up, especially at my age," Howard said. "Sometimes when I'm in bed and I can't roll over to my other side, I'll start feeling sorry for myself. I'm glad they came here today. I love how they've lived their lives."