This summer Starla Hilliard-Barnes was able to have fun with her young daughter, Elissiah, on a playground in Ohio. It was the first time they shared that experience: a mother in a wheelchair playing with her daughter in a handicap-accessible facility.
“It was honestly the most emotional experience I’ve had since she was born,” Hilliard-Barnes recalled recently.
Now back home in the Flathead Valley, Hilliard-Barnes would like to continue having that opportunity and help other people with disabilities do the same.
The Kalispell native was paralyzed from the chest down five years ago after a driver ran a red light and collided into her motorcycle. Since the life-changing event in 2009, she has adapted to her circumstances, following her new mantra, “We should never stop rocking just because we roll.”
The 26-year-old was named Ms. Wheelchair Montana this summer and traveled to the national competition in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio in late August.
The entire experience, which included listening to inspirational stories of other women with disabilities, motivated her even more to advocate for people with disabilities in the Flathead Valley.
“I think a lot of people think that when someone is disabled that they just sit in their home and don’t do anything, but that’s not true,” she said.
Hilliard-Barnes is trying to help others with disabilities and raise awareness about accessibility issues in the Flathead Valley.
A bulk of the community’s infrastructure, such as sidewalks and playgrounds, are inadequate for people in wheelchairs and others who are handicapped, Hilliard-Barnes said.
“There is hardly anything that is accessible here in the valley,” she said.
Hilliard-Barnes brought the issue to the attention of the City of Kalispell and continues to encourage city officials to consider making improvements for handicap accessibility. That includes developing a barrier-free ADA playground in one of the city’s public parks.
“We need to become a more inclusive community and involve everybody,” she said. “A lot of times people are left out because we don’t have things that are accessible here in town.”
Not a single public park in the valley is fully handicap accessible, according to Hilliard-Barnes.
“This is something we don’t realize until it affects us directly,” she noted.
She added, “We can’t forget about that segment of the community.”
City Manager Doug Russell said the city is certainly interested in addressing the issue and that staff members are analyzing sites and infrastructure across Kalispell to identify opportunities that would “be able to make an impact fairly shortly.”
Hilliard-Barnes is also raising support for others with disabilities through the Moving Forward Foundation, which she established along with her husband Shannon Barnes and Bruce Semler. The foundation is centered on providing adaptive recreational activities for those who have been through a tragic event. Just last month, for example, Hilliard-Barnes took a group of people zip lining at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
“These types of different outdoor activities just get them out in the open and show them that they can still live life,” she said.
Hilliard-Barnes’ ultimate goal is to regain the ability to walk. Her spinal cord was not severed in the crash, making her an incomplete T4 paraplegic.
In recent years she has slowly regained movement and feeling, including the ability to slightly feel a light touch.
A fundraiser called Stand up for Starla has been established to raise $100,000 for walking braces needed for rehabilitation and out-of-state rehab.
She remains optimistic and firmly focused on overcoming the obstacles in her way. That’s what her father, who was also in a serious accident, taught her as a child.
“He’s always taught me to push forward and to just keep going and have a courageous attitude,” she said.
For more information about the Moving Forward Foundation, visit www.justkeeprocking.com. For more information about Stand up for Starla, visit the Facebook page, www.facebook.com/standupforstarla