When Chad Christman was 4 months old, he went for a drive with his parents. The year was 1980, and Christman was sitting in his mom’s lap in the front seat of the car. His brothers were in the back. At an intersection just off East Sprague Avenue, the vehicle was hit so forcefully by another vehicle that Christman went airborne, flying out of the car. Police said the accident was so violent and the cars so mangled, it looked like it had happened on the freeway.
“At the time there were no seat belt laws or car seat laws, so it wasn’t unusual that I sat in my mom’s lap,” said Christman. The rest of the family escaped with bumps and bruises – but Christman was badly injured.
“They said I was blind after the accident. Thankfully, my sight came back,” said Christman. “And I had a lot of fluid built up in my head. It was terrible for my parents; they went through a lot.”
Today, at 30, Christman is the IT administrator for Goodwill Industries of the Inland Northwest, and he just received Goodwill’s national 2011 Achiever of the Year award because of how far he has come since that fateful day.
“We tried for the award last year, too, but didn’t get it,” said Christman, sitting in his Goodwill office from which he oversees more than 240 computer users. “I think it’s very cool that I won the award. And I feel like my life is headed in the right direction.”
After the car wreck, Christman spent a lot of time in hospitals, mostly at Shriners Hospital, where he was fitted for leg and back braces. During middle school he spent almost two years at Shriners while doctors tried to save as much of his mobility as possible. He was never able to walk, but he has upper-body mobility.
“I remember the old Shriners Hospital where there were seven beds to a room and all that,” said Christman. “It was tough keeping up with school while I was in there, but I was on the honor roll, and friends came to see me.”
Using a wheelchair caused severe scoliosis (curving) of his spine and at one point he went through back surgery.
“They put rods in my back, but back then the rods were made for people who sat still and I was very active, so the rods broke,” said Christman, chuckling a little. “I had other surgeries. They put a board in my back.”
After one round of surgery he lost feeling in his right arm and hand.
“It works, but it still gets cold sometimes and it’s not completely OK,” said Christman, lifting and flexing his right arm.
Growing up, Christman said he treated his wheelchair much like a skater would treat his skateboard. At his childhood home in Hangman Valley he’d race down the road with his friends, never one to be left behind.
“I’d do anything in my chair. I used to have to jump the curbs because there were no cutouts,” said Christman.
He went to the Rose Bowl with the band at Ferris High School before graduating from Shadle Park High School. After high school he was unsure what to do, but took some college classes and went out to live on his own.
Employment opportunities were limited because, as Christman puts it, people mostly saw his chair.
“There was a lot of ,‘Oh, you can’t do this and you can’t do that’ going on,” he said. “At that time of my life I didn’t plan too far ahead. I just planned for the next day, because I didn’t know what was going to happen with my body.”
He finally connected with Goodwill in 2003, and his first job there was to sort toys.
“I think they got annoyed with me because I went through the boxes too fast,” Christman said, laughing.
Through ongoing job evaluations his computer skills were brought up again and again.
“I built a computer network at home out of the computers we had,” said Christman.
“When I was a kid, if I needed a cable for something, I’d make my own. I like building things out of what we have around the house.”
Some computer classes and a yearlong internship at Itronix launched Christman into his new career.
“It happened so fast. I was hired in the IT department in 2005,” said Christman. By 2010, he was promoted to administrator. “I really like to teach people how to do things. And I try to make it a little more interesting for them if I can tell they aren’t paying attention.”
The maintenance staff at Goodwill has helped Christman design a cart that hooks onto his wheelchair so he can transport computers around the office.
He loves his job and said he’d like to stay in the IT department as long as they will keep him there.
“I like to say that it’s kind of ironic: when Chad got here he depended on our services; now we are totally dependent on him,” said Clark M. Brekke, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of the Inland Northwest. “He’s a great guy. He certainly deserves the award and we are happy to have him here.”