More than a Four-Year Commitment: Passing on Passion through Alumni Connections

By Kelly Pantason ’15 and Carrie Callahan ‘02, November 5, 2020
Women's soccer alumni create a rehabilitation program for individuals with spinal injuries.

Red's Place was crowded after the Ithaca College (IC) Soccer alumni games in April 2015. The men's and women's teams had both finished a day of soccer on Carp Wood Field, uniting generations of Bombers and honoring another class of seniors as they passed from current team members to alumni. In 2015, Kelly Pantason was one of those seniors. She wrapped up her senior season as part of a Bomber team who finished with a record of 15-4-1 and as co-champions of the Empire 8. Although Pantason had played in her last career game for the Bombers, she would be in Ithaca for the next two years as a part of the IC physical therapy program.

There was an especially large turnout of alumni for the 2015 alumni weekend as women's coach Mindy Quigg had reached her 300th win during the prior season and men's coach Andy Byrne had announced his retirement after 31 years leading the Bombers. Carrie Callahan had made the trip from Boston, Massachusetts to honor the two coaches and reunite with her teammates. Carrie was a member of the class of 2002, she was co-captain her senior year, and was a freshman the year the Bombers hosted the NCAA final four in Ithaca in 1998.

Coach Quigg works tirelessly to prepare her team for the season ahead, but also to connect them to the history of the women's soccer program and to prepare them for their life after IC. At the 2015 alumni game, Coach Quigg made a specific point to introduce Kelly and Carrie, who both juggled the intense academic requirements of the physical therapy program with the time commitment of being a member of the women's soccer team. Coach Quigg knew that Carrie had founded a program that Kelly would be interested in, and that introduction has turned into a connection and shared passion that has continued to grow over the last five years.

Carrie Callahan '02 and Kelly Pantason '15

Carrie Callahan '02 (left) and Kelly Pantason '15 were connected by their former head coach Mindy Quigg.

Carrie didn't always dream of running a business. It was during a class in Rochester when one of her professors planted a seed, and she realized that working in spinal cord injury rehab might be the thing for her. Years later in 2010, after working over seven years to gain knowledge and experience in working with individuals with spinal cord injury, she saw an unmet need and decided to do something about it. Carrie joined forces with another physical therapist and an occupational therapist to create a program called Empower Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). The drive and dedication that she learned both on and off the field at Ithaca helped to lay the groundwork for the skills she has needed since those early days of establishing a non-profit organization.

Empower SCI, Inc, held its first summer program in 2012 on the campus of Stony Brook University on Long Island. This unique program provides the opportunity for a whole-body, intensive rehabilitation experience for the individual with a chronic spinal cord injury. Empower SCI incorporates traditional therapy (physical therapy and occupational therapy), with vocational rehabilitation, peer support, rehabilitation counseling, and has a heavy focus on recreation, which is near and dear to Carrie's heart. As a collegiate athlete, an avid cyclist, and outdoor enthusiast, sports and recreation were always a huge part of Carrie's life, and she has truly matched her passion with her practice while hosting events such as adaptive surfing, adaptive cycling, and adaptive paddling for the participants involved with Empower SCI. Overall, Carrie is able to use both the leadership and teamwork skills that she first developed on the field at Ithaca College, and the academic understanding of the human body and spinal cord injury from the classroom, to improve the lives of the participants, and volunteers that are involved in this annual summer program. Empower SCI combines the magic of a summer "camp", the altruism of a fully volunteer staff, and the learning experience of a lifetime for the participants and volunteers involved. 

When Kelly had decided to attend Ithaca College and was accepted into the physical therapy program, she was set on a career in outpatient orthopedics. After playing soccer for over 15 years, she had experienced her fair share of injuries. She was inspired to apply to the ICPT program by a PT who had gotten her back on the field countless times, helping her live her dream of playing soccer at the collegiate level. After that first introduction at Red's Place, Kelly was struck by Carrie's knowledge, passion, and dedication to the field of neuro-rehab, specifically working with individuals with SCI. In the summer of 2016, Kelly packed up and made the drive down from Ithaca to Stony Brook University. Ever since that first summer at Empower SCI, Kelly has been hooked.

Kelly was overcome by the environment of acceptance, support, compassion, and selflessness at Empower SCI. The idea of being a part of something greater than an individual was not a feeling unknown to Kelly from her years as an IC Bomber. Coach Quigg had always instilled the importance of team-work, dedication, passion, and accountability in her players. Over the last five years, Kelly has taken those lessons learned on the field and transitioned them into her time at Empower, playing multiple roles throughout the years with the goal to always deliver the best program possible; from her summer days as a residential aide, to the weekends travelling to assist with wheelchair skills courses, and even to hours spent sending outreach emails to SCI professionals all over the country.

One of those outreach emails each year was to Sara (Proietti) Hobbs, the therapy manager of the Spinal Cord Innovation Center at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (SRAL). Kelly didn't know it at the time, but this connection would grow to be more than a yearly outreach email.  After graduating from the ICPT program in 2017, Kelly first spent a few years as a travel physical therapist as the flexibility allowed her to be present at Empower every summer. However, when a job opened up at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, Kelly knew that this wasn't an opportunity she could pass up to further her career specifically in SCI rehab. She reached back out to Sara, who she later found out was also an Ithaca College graduate of the class of 2004. A few months later, as Kelly walked into the doors of the SRAL for her first day of work, she was struck with the gravity of how that first introduction to Carrie in 2015 had been the catalyst to get her here. Kelly will tell you that Empower SCI is now so tightly woven into the fabric of her life, it's hard to imagine life without it. 

Now in its 10th year of programming, Empower SCI continues to expand, and demonstrate the ability to pivot during times of change. In 2019, Empower SCI hosted its first expansion program at the University of Montana, where Kelly attended and played a leadership role as residential director for the many student volunteers that help provide care to program attendees. In 2020, Empower SCI hosted its first-ever virtual one-week summer program with 11 participants from around the globe. Individuals from as far as Nepal and England were able to attend this Zoom-supported event, despite the world-wide pandemic that largely isolated most of the world, and even more drastically, individuals with disabilities. 

Being a member of the IC women's soccer team is more than a four-year commitment, it is a lifetime of belonging to a group of women who are dedicated to living out the values that Coach Quigg instills in each one of her players. The team brought Carrie and Kelly together, and the ICPT program gave them the skills that they have needed to grow Empower SCI into the life-changing experience that it is for so many today.