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State Honoree

Cody Unser

New Mexico

Cody Unser, 14, of Corrales, N.M., an eighth-grader at the Bosque School in Albuquerque, founded the Cody Unser First Step Foundation to focus attention and research on a rare spinal cord inflammation called transverse myelitis, after she was paralyzed by the condition in early 1999. “After six weeks of intense rehab,” said Cody, “I returned home in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down. I decided to take a negative experience and turn it into a positive to help others – and me.” With help from her mother, she created a not-for-profit corporation that is now working to promote public awareness of TM; encourage collaboration among doctors and hospitals that treat the disease; and raise money for research. Cody consulted with doctors and physical therapists around the country, built a Web site, became an ambassador for the world’s only TM center at Johns Hopkins University, and recently helped organize a national consortium that will seek to establish TM centers of excellence across the country. She also spends hours a day talking to other TM sufferers, answering mail, and working on fundraising ideas. “I have learned that you are not handicapped unless you think you are,” said Cody, whose father is race-car champion Al Unser, Jr. “Most important, I’ve learned how important hope is, and to never give up. No one should ever take this life for granted.”