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Mission to Walk: Xavier grad redefining life for disabled after his own injury

“I drowned, woke up three weeks later at UMC to doctors telling me that I would probably never walk again,” he remembers.

NEW ORLEANS — He was a young man from Gentilly. He was living his dream, traveling and working in TV production of professional sports games and shows.

Then, in a split second, everything changed in Mark Raymond's life, but now it's Mark who is now changing the lives of others.

It was a beautiful, long July Fourth weekend five years ago. Mark Raymond, 27, was on Lake Pontchartrain boating with friends.  He took what would be his last two steps, and dove into the calm water.

“I was trying to move and nothing happened, and then panic, like started to set in. And the first thing I could think of was my mom, like, ‘Oh my God, I can't believe I did this to my mom.’ And my next thought was like, ‘God, please save me.’

His head hit the sandy lake bottom.  The vertebrae in his neck shattered. His spinal cord was severed.

“I drowned, woke up three weeks later at UMC to doctors telling me that I would probably never walk again,” he remembers.

Two years ago when we first met Mark, he had come back from a special kind of rehab gym in California.

“It was just this uplifting feeling the first day I rode into the room. I just remember looking around and seeing a bunch of empty wheelchairs,” Raymond recalls.

He credits that part of his journey with pulling him out of the depression, mourning the end of his career in pro sports broadcast production, grieving the lost future, and ending thoughts of suicide.

“It also changed my mentality around disability, and I stopped looking into the past and started to really think about the future, and what I wanted from life now.”

So he designed a similar fitness room in his family's garage. Then he had a dream.

“Being able to provide that for people in this community isn't just a feel-good moment from the conditioning and fitness side, it's making somebody's dream come true,” said Raymond.

He started the nonprofit Split Second Foundation. And within just a few years, Split Second Fitness opened its doors.

These are the words from members as told in a Christa Rock video production:  “This spot right here gives me hope for my redemption.”

“If we wouldn't have come here, I don't believe Stevie would be walking right now.”

“I am very confident. I'm a cool person to be around. I just love working out. Just love being here.”

“There are over 300,000 people that live in the state of Louisiana with some type of ambulatory disability. The majority of those people live in poverty, right, because access to jobs for people with disabilities is really difficult,” explained Raymond.

In less than a year, this affordable gym in Gentilly for people with disabilities, and their caretakers, already has 60 members, and a staff of trainers who specialize in their needs and rehab.

“The big impact that we want to make is keeping people from having those serious secondary complications, heart attacks, pulmonary embolisms, cardiovascular issues because they've been living a sedentary lifestyle,” added Raymond.

But Split Second Foundation is doing more. It's helping with mental challenges and navigating resources for the newly disabled, guiding them through home renovations, and caretakers.

Mark is still dreaming big. He wants to add vocational job training, housing opportunities, and even build a health-oriented campus.

And now he wants to raise enough to donate robotic exoskeletons called the EksoNR, to the disabled so they can stand and walk again.

“I could see a robot suit being on the market five or 10 years from now that instead of me taking my wheelchair out for a night on the town, I'm putting on my Ekso and I'm going to hang out with my friends.”

Mark says when he stands, it psychologically gives him the world view from where he should be, upright.

“There's not community organizations that are doing what we're doing, breaking those types of barriers. It's literally making dreams come true, transforming hope into action.”

That’s because this Brother Martin and Xavier University graduate is taking the optimism from his heart and soul, painting it on the walls, and redefining a can-do spirit.

“We've got some really big and bold dreams and ambitions for the future, but I think we'll be able to do it.”

Right now those robot exoskeletons cost $250,000.

You can meet Mark and support Split Second Foundation, Thursday night, at a dinner gala with music by Tank and the Bangas.

It's at 7:00, at Generations Hall. And Mark will have a special surprise at the event. 

Click here for ticket details.

RELATED: Dive into shallow water leaves man paralyzed

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