At the age of 15, Kiland Sampa was a strong, athletic student at Parkway North High School, and a championship tennis player who competed in tournaments throughout the country. He was following a family tradition begun by his grandmother. His father and his mother played competitive tennis, and his uncle had earned an athletic scholarship to college.
One evening in 2013, Kiland was at his hotel after playing in a tournament in Indianapolis and decided to go for a swim in the pool. The pool was shallower than he expected, and when he dove in, he broke his neck and crushed his spinal cord. A friend was able to pull him out of the pool and save him from drowning, but Kiland was paralyzed from the waist down.
Today, at 23 and eight years since acquiring a disability, Kiland has adapted his passion for athletics by playing wheelchair tennis and preparing to compete in the 2024 Paralympics in Paris as a member of the wheelchair rugby team. But he is also active in ways that help others who’ve experienced life-altering injuries. He does this by guiding them through the physical and mental challenge of living with a disability.
Kiland knows what’s ahead for them. After his accident, Kiland spent five months at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital as an inpatient and then two years as an outpatient. He remembers the shock of knowing he could never reach his goal of winning future tournaments for which he’d practiced so long, and the initial depression that haunted him. But the physical and recreational therapists at Ranken Jordan changed that. In addition to the daily physical therapy he received, he was treated as part of a caring family who made him feel at home. Over time, he learned how to embrace a new life with a disability. Much of this was done, he said, by being kept busy, even when he wasn’t in physical therapy sessions.
“The therapists at Ranken Jordan had a huge impact on me. I was seen as being a member of their family and saw how people with disabilities could benefit from their help.” He says his therapist treated him like a son or a best friend.
“Physical therapy helps us become strong and independent, but it is hard. I didn’t like therapy itself, but my therapists made me like coming to see them.”
Kiland continues to keep himself busy by helping others who have disabilities. While attending school to become a recreational therapist, Kiland works part-time at Paraquad as a Peer Specialist.
Through the Peer Mentor program, Kiland matches people with disabilities who are seeking guidance with volunteer mentors who have similar disabilities. It’s often hard for people to accept their disabilities, and they may experience feelings of isolation, sadness, and a lack of hope. Taking things one step at a time, the mentors help those participating in the program to set personal goals and achieve them.
“When you watch them advance their abilities and achieve each goal, it is an amazing thing to see,” he says.
Kiland also volunteers at Ranken Jordan, the Disabled Athletic Sports Association (DASA), and Washington University School of Medicine.
While the people he helps at Paraquad are adults, at Ranken Jordan he works with children, including a boy of 10 years of age who was injured in a car accident that had killed both of his parents. He says that children also struggle with trauma and adjusting to living with a disability.
“A lot of kids think they can’t do things,” Kiland explains.
Kiland says that living with a disability is never easy. He knows firsthand the frustration, depression, and physical exertion that comes with getting through the day. And he shares those insights with the participants he serves at Paraquad. But in the end, he chooses a positive perspective.
“Why be sad and depressed when you have the ability to live life and be happy?”