Championing Independence
An Atlanta nonprofit led by Bucknellians will create a social hub and living space for physically disabled young adults
by Eveline Chao


or most parents, attending a child’s high-school graduation is a joyous occasion. But when Rick ’79 and Nancy Murphy Thompson ’79, P’08 attended graduation parties for their son Matt and his friends, “it felt almost like a funeral,” Rick Thompson says.

Many of Matt’s friends are physically disabled, while Matt has a rare form of muscular dystrophy, so school-related activities are typically the center of their social lives. But the Thompsons knew, “when they leave high school, everything stops.” Homebound and isolated with little to do, and reliant on parents for their care, their risk of depression is high.

Sam Nana-Sinkam ’10 (left) joined Rick Thompson ’79, P’08 (right) and other alumni to talk to Bucknell management students about their partnership
Rick Thompson ’79, P’08 (right) with son Matt, who inspired the new nonprofit
Photos: Emily Paine (top), David Weaver Photography
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Top photo: Sam Nana-Sinkam ’10 (left) joined Rick Thompson ’79, P’08 (right) and other alumni to talk to Bucknell management students about their partnership.
Above: Rick Thompson ’79, P’08 (right) with son Matt, who inspired the new nonprofit.
Rick Thompson vowed that wouldn’t happen to Matt and his friends. In 2009, inspired by their religious faith, the Thompsons founded Titan Wheelchair Sports, a club that meets every other Saturday to, as Thompson puts it, “crank tunes, play wheelchair sports and laugh for two hours.” It also holds monthly social events such as bowling parties or open-mic nights. In 10 years, the club has grown from five young adults with physical challenges, to more than 75 participants, some of whom drive at least an hour to attend. But Thompson knew more was needed: Who would take care of these young adults when their aging parents could no longer care for them? From that seed of an idea, Champions Place was born.

Scheduled to finish construction later this year, Champions Place will be a “first-of-its-kind, best-in-class” shared living community in Johns Creek, Ga., near Atlanta, for young adults with physical disabilities. The idea began when Rick Thompson, who serves as executive director, researched living options for Matt.

“We couldn’t find a viable independent living alternative to meet the needs of young adults with physical disabilities,” says Thompson. “We looked nationally, and the only option available was a nursing home.”

Tailored to accommodate wheelchairs and certain physical disabilities, the first facility will provide independent living accommodations for 16 residents and a much-needed social hub for the growing number of Titan Wheelchair Sports members.

“The days of throwing Titan parties for Matt’s friends with 25 to 30 accessible vans parked on our street are numbered,” Thompson jokes. Champions Place will also provide meaningful volunteer opportunities for the surrounding Johns Creek community.

“The magnitude of the need is enormous,” notes board member Tom Hislop ’78, P’20, P’22. According to the organization, there are more than 11,000 adults between 18 and 35 in the Atlanta area, and more than 630,000 nationally, with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy and disabling injuries. For that reason, the organization hopes to eventually expand the program across the state — and country.

Titan Wheelchair Sports teams scrimmaged earlier this year
Photo: David Weaver Photography
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Titan Wheelchair Sports teams scrimmaged earlier this year. Rick Thompson ’79, P’08 founded the club a decade ago.

Creating Champions Place has been a full-on Bucknellian effort. Trustee Robin Gale Zafirovski ’79, P’09, who met Thompson at a picnic for first-year students in 1975, helped the Thompsons kick off the initial fundraising with the help of her husband, Mike. At the very first fundraising event, the Publix Atlanta half-marathon, the Zafirovskis took turns pushing Matt for 13.1 miles over a hilly course in a racing wheelchair.

“By the end it was pouring rain, but we still ended it with big grins on our faces,” Robin recalls. The Zafirovskis also connected Thompson with Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone ’57, P’83, who immediately supported the project with a donation. Today, Champions Place has raised more than 80 percent of its $5 million fundraising goal.

Gary Sheinbaum ’79, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger Americas, (who also works with Calvin Klein, Van Heusen, Speedo and other brands under Tommy Hilfiger’s parent company, PVH) donated the first batch of adaptive sweatshirts for the half-marathon, and is now contributing Tommy Adaptive apparel, designed for people with disabilities, along with furniture and other home goods. The company will also use Champions Place to beta-test new products for its Tommy Adaptive line.

“Passionate people working together across industries can lead positive and significant change.”
Gary Sheinbaum ’79, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger Americas

Sheinbaum also connected Thompson with Sam Nana-Sinkam ’10, an executive at Google. The company will provide assistive technology, such as Google Home and Nest devices that can be operated by voice commands. Google also will use Champions Place as an incubator for developing and testing new products intended to make these young adults more self-reliant.

Sheinbaum, Nana-Sinkam, Thompson and Hislop spoke on campus during February’s Freeman Week: A Celebration of Management at Bucknell University. Their topic? Champions Place: Social Entrepreneurship and the Power of the Bucknell Network.

If that’s not enough Bison spirit, Thompson’s other son, Rob ’08, and Hislop’s daughters, Ellie ’20 and Abby ’22, are regular volunteers at Titan Wheelchair Sports. “We reached out for help, and over 40 Bucknellians have jumped in to help make this faith-inspired dream a reality,” Thompson says.

“The love Rick and Nancy have for their son and for humanity is just incredible,” Zafirovski says. With luck and hard work, a lot more people will soon benefit from their drive.

“People with disabilities have been significantly underserved in many ways,” Sheinbaum says. “With a strong strategic plan and collaboration by passionate people working together across industries, we can lead positive and significant change.”