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For some, walk is personal mission

Many participants in the Journey Forward Walk in Canton were joined by relatives and friends.Photos by George Rizer for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Most charity walks are a relatively straightforward business of lacing up one’s sneakers and hitting the pavement for a worthy cause; in short, physicality often takes a back seat to philanthropy. But for the 23 participants at last weekend’s fifth annual Journey Forward Walk in Canton, the very act of perambulation was nothing short of miraculous.

Journey Forward is a rehabilitation facility on Dedham Street in Canton that provides physical therapy sessions for people who have suffered severe spinal cord injuries or deal with other neurological complications like strokes or brain trauma. For many of the facility’s clients, the Journey Forward Walk on Oct. 25 followed months, and in some cases years, of pain, perseverance, and intense training.

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“We had some clients walking 15 steps and others walking up to a mile,” said Dan Cummings, founder and senior vice president of Journey Forward. “It gives our donors and supporters proof of what’s happening, and it gives our clients something to work toward.”

Cummings, who lives in Hyde Park, suffered a spinal cord injury at the age of 19 when he dove into a shallow pond. Doctors said he would never walk again. Fourteen years later, he moves around ably with the help of a walker, and says his ultimate goal is “100 percent independence.”

“I just refused to accept their diagnosis,” he said. “I made a promise to myself that I was never going to give up, and that I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to doing this.”

Inspired by Project Walk, a paralysis recovery center in San Diego where he trained for almost four years, Cummings opened Journey Forward in June 2008. Since then, the nonprofit facility has grown from two specialists and nine clients to a staff of 17 specialists serving 78 people. According to Cummings, the program was recently added to the NeuroRecovery Network, and has gained recognition from Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.

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“We’re really starting to work closely with the medical field,” he said. “I think that’s very, very important. We all have to be on the same page.”

The annual walk is largely an effort to raise money for grant scholarships for current and future clients who need assistance to cover the cost of physical therapy sessions at Journey Forward. Those sessions cost $100 an hour and are not covered by health insurance. All proceeds from the walk and other fund-raising events go directly to the Journey Forward Financial Assistance Fund, which was set up in January 2013 and has provided a total of $104,000 to 10 clients since its inception.

“Our goal is to get the health insurance companies to recognize this program,” said Cummings. “In the meantime we’re going to do whatever we can for our clients.”

Cummings said every participant in this year’s walk has his or her own inspirational story, the progress of which can be marked from year to year.

“We didn’t have too many of those success stories when we first opened,” he said. “Now we’ve started having people getting up and walking again.”

One participant at this year’s walk was Sindy Cruz of Waltham, who was injured in a car accident in November 2009 and received the same devastating news that Cummings remembers so vividly.

“I was told by doctors that I would never walk again, never feel anything, never move,” Cruz said during a recent physical therapy session at Journey Forward. “Now I’m moving with a walker and have sensation in my legs again.”

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According to Cummings, Cruz went from taking 15 steps last year at last year’s walk to traversing a 10th of a mile on Saturday.

“It’s a game of inches,” said Cummings. “It’s been 14 years since my injury, and I’m still working at it and still progressing. Until there’s a cure, I believe that this intense, exercise-based program is the way to go.”

To learn more about Journey Forward or to donate to its financial assistance fund, visit www.dreamfund.com/journeyforward.


William Holt can be reached at william.holt@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wb_holt.