The Unstoppable Jason Stoffer

Eureka resident Jason Stoffer suffered a spinal cord injury following a car accident in 2017. But that hasn’t stopped him and his wife, Lori, from embracing an adventurous life together while advocating for a cure.

By Maggie Dresser
Jason Stoffer takes a break from cycling during a 620-mile journey through Canada from Jasper National Park to Eureka, Montana. Photo by Rob Prechtl

As Jason Stoffer wheels himself around his unfinished home south of Eureka — with musical instruments on the walls and a miniature grand piano next to the kitchen — he and his wife, Lori, point to the chimney they installed themselves, the insulation in the walls and the hundreds of boards he cut since they started building two years ago. Using old climbing gear to set up pulleys and a little bit of “redneck engineering,” they’ve gotten much of the hard work done, although the prolonged project means their three kids (ages 9, 11, and 13) are still sleeping on couches downstairs until the bedrooms are finished.

Building a home from scratch would challenge anyone, which makes Jason’s efforts all the more impressive. 

“Building a house from a wheelchair goes a little slower,” Jason said. “I worked in the residential trades for years and I couldn’t stomach somebody else building our house. We’re doing it but it’s going at a snail’s pace.”

In between building his house, Jason, who is a paraplegic, rides his handcycle on U.S. Forest Service roads hundreds of miles per week, swims Dickey Lake using only his upper body and plays music in the living room and around the campfire with Lori. 

Jason lives with a positive attitude and maintains a happy life despite the challenges he faces. But he is not completely satisfied. 

“I was angry,” Jason said of his injury. “How far can we see into space now? How many satellites does Elon Musk have in the air? We have all this amazing stuff but we seriously don’t know what goes on with this gelatinous cord going through our vertebrae? It kind of pissed me off (to have a doctor tell me) ‘What happened to you has happened and you’ll just have to deal with it. Here’s your wheelchair and try to live as happy of a life as
you can.’”

Musicians Lori and Jason Stoffer at their home in Eureka on August 9, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In November 2017, Jason rolled his truck on U.S. Highway 93 near Eureka after hitting black ice. He flew through the windshield more than 100 feet. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, with some function of his quad muscles. Before the accident, Jason and Lori led an exciting life, traveling and recreating wherever they could. They met in eastern Montana, moved to Alaska and North Dakota, and finally settled in Eureka in 2016, after Jason got a job transfer as a federal law enforcement officer. 

Jason and Lori, who met at ages 19 and 20, also share a passion for music. Lori grew up in a musical family in Whitefish and plays the piano and mandolin. Jason plays the guitar and sings. 

“Everyone in my family plays or sings,” Lori said. “Music has always been a communal experience for my family.”

While various members of Lori’s family have performed professionally, including her brother, local musician Luke Lautaret, she and Jason prefer a living room audience. 

After the accident, the Stoffers started playing in living rooms at the rehabilitation hospitals where they lived for weeks or months at a time during Jason’s recovery. 

“He had his guitar and I had my mandolin, and we would play music at these rehab hospitals,” she said. “Music is a language that transcends … and people with traumatic brain injuries can still appreciate and enjoy music. Music and community are two handrails we had through this injury and moving forward.”

While the Stoffers were at a rehab facility in Denver, they met Quinn Brett, a former professional climber who fell more than 100 feet while climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. She sustained a spinal cord injury in the incident leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. 

Brett and Jason have maintained a close friendship since meeting shortly after their accidents years ago, and in June 2022, they embarked on a 620-mile cycling trip through Canada on adaptive handcycles. The pair cycled from Jasper National Park to Eureka, by way of Banff National Park, averaging 80 miles per day for nine days. For Jason, it was part of a fundraising challenge for the nonprofit he works for, Unite 2 Fight Paralysis (U2FP), a grassroots organization based out of Minnesota that funds research to find cures for spinal cord injuries.

Jason Stoffer and Quinn Brett handcycle through a stream bed during a 620 mile journey through Canada from Jasper National Park to Eureka, Montana. Photo by Rob Prechtl

Jason joined the nonprofit about a year and a half ago and has since helped pass legislative bills in Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington state. By the end of the year, U2FP will have secured $24 million that will fund spinal cord injury research, a field that traditionally gets a smaller percentage of resources when compared to other diseases. 

“They think spinal cord injury is a dead end and there’s nothing we can do,” Lori said, explaining the lack of resources thrown behind it. 

While many people who are not disabled assume that paraplegics and quadriplegics merely struggle with mobility constraints, Jason explained that scientific advances to alleviate problems related to bowel and sexual dysfunction that result from spinal cord injuries would dramatically improve the quality of life for those affected. 

“It’s a difficult life,” Jason said. “When it comes down to it, mobility is the least of your concerns.”

While Jason makes the most of his days, he is not satisfied with doing nothing to help himself and others like him. 

“I’m trying to actually change this thing as opposed to just being able to live more comfortably in a wheelchair,” Jason said. “I don’t think I ever saw myself as an advocate until now.”

Jason Stoffer moves from his wheelchair to his handcycle in his garage in Eureka on August 9, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In Eureka, Jason and Lori are building a home that goes beyond the standards outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a place that will be accessible for both manual and powered wheelchairs. The ultimate goal is to build a community space for everyone in their orbit. 

“Being in this wheelchair community, there’s not a lot of accessible rural places,” Lori said. “There are not many beautiful places that people [with paralysis] can access and I would love to see us develop this place so people can come here to a calm and chill environment.”

Despite the challenges of building a house from a wheelchair, Jason and Lori are slowly making progress, and they welcome help with open arms from friends in the Tobacco Valley and beyond. 

“Obviously, it’s hard to get on a ladder and when it came to raising walls, we could make a call and have 30 people here, which is really something special,” Jason said. “We’ll have a barbeque and sit around the fire until 2 a.m. drinking and telling stories – that’s where the magic is.”

Lori said she’s become more “brawn” since Jason’s accident, and while she does a lot more heavy lifting than she did in the past, she said they have worked through some incredibly difficult times together. 

Spinal cord injuries often tear relationships apart, Jason said, but they have maintained a strong connection throughout their 25 years together. 

Jason Stoffer takes a break from cycling during a 620-mile journey through Canada from Jasper National Park to Eureka, Montana. Photo by Rob Prechtl

“We have a good relationship,” Lori said. “There’s a lot of stuff to work through when half the body goes away. He’s willing to work through the heavy emotions and we’ve done that together.”

With Lori’s support, Jason assigns himself a set of goals every year, which helps raise money for U2FP while giving him a personal goal to work toward. In addition to his Canadian cycling tour, he did a “century day” in 2021 and cycled 100 miles using a foot pedal tricycle, lapping 25-mile loops in the Tobacco Valley on Forest Service roads. Last summer, Jason swam the entire length of Dickey Lake and back, swimming 5.6 miles and beating the official paraplegic distance record of 4.9 miles in five-and-a-half hours, wearing Crocs footwear to add buoyancy to his lower body. 

“Setting these goals gives me an excuse to train for stuff,” he said. “I don’t think I work well in moderation. I have to set these challenging goals.”

Between his efforts to pass legislation that will fund spinal cord injury research and connecting appropriate resources through U2FP, Jason plans to continue advocating for those affected by spinal cord injuries while keeping a positive attitude. Those who know him have said Jason has become an inspiration. 

“I just look at Jason and I don’t see somebody who is in a wheelchair,” said Michelle Tribble, a friend of the Stoffers. “He has just found so many ways to continue enjoying life and not letting this tragic thing that happened to him get him down. I’m sure he has hard days, but he has so much positivity and zeal for life. He’s unstoppable.”