COVINGTON, Ky. -- When a diving accident in 1981 left Jeff Wilson a quadriplegic, he faced a restricted future. A specially design wheelchair gave him the ability to move around, but it was the gift of another set of wheels in 1998 -- a handicapped-accessible van -- that really gave him his freedom.
Today, the 20-year-old van is inoperable, and his friends are driven to help him get a new one.
After all, there are still plenty of students out who have yet to hear his sobering story of how personal choices and misfortune ultimately led him to forge his own independence.
“Not having a van that I can drive myself means that I must go in my wheelchair, which limits the distance I can travel,” he said. “I make arrangements to ride the bus or rely on someone to drive me in my van. I do not have the same freedom to come and go as I please.”
Friends hope a fundraising blues concert, scheduled for April 22 at the American Legion in Latonia, will raise the $20,000 needed to purchase him a new standard van. The Band of Helping Hands -- a foundation that uses musical performances to raise funds to help children and young adults faced with special needs, challenging home situations and financial constraints -- is organizing the event.
Called Wheels for Wilson II, the show will feature three of the area’s premier blues bands, a silent auction, split-the-pot raffles and door prizes. The name is a tribute to Wheels for Wilson, a basketball tournament fundraiser that helped buy Wilson's first van.
“I named my van 'Freedom' because the van gave me the freedom to come and go as I please," Wilson said. "I no longer had to make transportation arrangements or depend on the bus. I was able to help my family and friends by providing transportation for them and by running errands. I was able to support and enjoy my nephews' sporting events.
Once The Band of Helping Hands buys a new van, the Kentucky Vocational Rehabilitation Department will coordinate installing controls and modifications so Jeff can drive it.
When he was just out of high school, Wilson spent a weekend partying with friends at Red River Gorge. He dove into shallow water and suffered a debilitating spinal cord injury.
Initially, he struggled with his newly limited lifestyle. But eventually, he grew to accept it and became determined not to let it define what he could do.
He attended Northern Kentucky University and earned a bachelor’s degree in Office System Technology in 1993. While he was a student, he developed many friendships, including some with the students he helped with computer skills and members of the athletic department. Those athletic department friends included coaches Nancy Winstel and Ken Shields, who facilitated the 1998 fundraiser that helped Jeff buy his first van. With its many modifications the state provided, the van was valued at more than $80,000.
“I like to kid around and tell everybody that I’m worth every penny of it and more,” Wilson said.
Among the van’s many modifications are a lowered side floor that increases the headroom and allows Wilson to remain in his wheelchair, which locks into place during driving.
An upgraded computer system allows him to control all the van’s systems while a joystick replaces the traditional steering wheel and gas and brakes pedals. The computer system, which has undergone extensive repairs in recent years, is now broken beyond repair, making it impossible for Wilson to drive.
Greg Mebs used to pass Wilson in his van nearly every morning as the two drove to work -- Mebs to his youth counseling position with Mebs and Associates, and Wilson to his part-time position with Fidelity Investments.
Mebs met Wilson years ago at Lucille’s, a blues club Mebs then owned. The pair became friends, sharing a love of music and a desire to give back to the community.
“He is one of the sweetest, nicest human beings you’d ever want to meet," Meb said. "After I met him, I asked him if he would speak to some of the kids (in counseling). He’d come around and pull in his van, you could hear a pin drop. He’d take them in the van and tell them his story. It was therapeutic for them to hear his story. First, when they see him and they see he can’t really move, it is very humbling to them. They almost seem afraid, but the reality of it is in his story -- that he took actions without thinking. After they hear his story, they recognize things that they’ve done without thinking.”
As the founding member of The Band of Helping Hands, Mebs didn’t have to look far for a way to help Wilson. Thanks to the recent receipt of a charitable trust, The Band of Helping Hands has been able to help many more in the community, including the gift of $5,000 each to four local schools. The organization provided some type of assistance to more than 600 families in 2016.
Though BOHH gifts are not typically this large, Mebs felt compelled to help Wilson.
Since 1994, Wilson has shared his message with students at more than 125 schools, encouraging them to listen to their inner voice and to think before they act.
“While I was partying, my life had no purpose. All I wanted to do was party and I would beg, borrow, or steal to do so. However, since I quit partying, I have realized that my life does have a purpose,” Wilson tells students in his presentation.
“If the good Lord were to give me a choice of going back to when I was 17 and be able to do everything for myself and party the way I was at that time, or I could stay the way I am now without partying, as bad as I would like to do everything for myself, in a heartbeat, I would tell Him to leave me the way I am," he said. "Hopefully, by living my life the way I do and by giving presentations, I can positively influence others to stay away from making the same bad decisions that I made.”
The Band of Helping Hands has already raised about $9,000 for Wilson’s new van. Mebs is hopeful the remainder will come in by the end of the event.
If you go
Wheels for Wilson II
April 22, 2017
7 p.m. to midnight
3801 Winston Ave., Covington
Entertainment by G Miles and the Band of Helping Hands, Ben Levin and the Heaters, The Noah Wotherspoon Band and Open Jam with John Redell
Tickets for the event are $25; visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/wheels-for-wilson-ii-tickets-31238672711 for more.