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MIT employees benefit from past Community Giving campaigns

Aaron Donaghey knows firsthand the importance of MIT's Community Giving campaign. Without it, he might not have been able to buy his first wheelchair, pay for college or purchase the specially equipped van he needs to get to work each day.

Mr. Donaghey, a temporary receptionist in the Campus Activities Complex office since June, damaged his spinal cord in a car accident on December 7, 1988 ("Pearl Harbor day -- day of infamy," he said.) Driving home from his part-time job at Building 19 in Burlington one afternoon, the high school senior's car hit a curb and ran into a small tree. The accident injured two of his cervical discs, transforming his 17-year-old body from that of a cross-country runner to a quadriplegic unable to move from the neck down.

He underwent rehabilitation therapy and now uses his arms and hands, but still lacks fine motor control in his fingers.

While he didn't let the injury prevent him from setting goals and reaching them, he did require a great deal of help, especially in those first years. He managed to graduate with his high school class and even attend the prom. Later he went to college at Northeastern to earn a BS in communications.

At the time of the accident, Aaron's father, Larry Donaghey, was an electrician in MIT's Physical Plant. Some of his friends and coworkers, including electrician Robert Zarella (who retired three years ago), set up the Aaron Fund to help the Donagheys meet the enormous expenses they suddenly faced. The fund donated money to Mr. Donaghey's rehabilitation therapy and helped the family purchase a van with a wheelchair lift.

The Aaron Fund was later added to MIT's United Way campaign (now called Community Giving) so that other MIT employees could make donations.

"A lot of people at MIT have helped me out," said Mr. Donaghey. "I want to say thank-you."

Larry Donaghey, who has been at MIT 26 years and is now manager of personnel in Facilities, said that many of his coworkers helped renovate the family home in Billerica to accommodate Aaron's needs.

"One Saturday there were 19 pick-up trucks and cars on my street, and it looked like a convention on top of my house," he said. "Even though people who were here at the time are at an age when they're starting to retire, there's still an awful lot of support for Aaron."

Aaron Donaghey is now trying to help other people in a similar position. This summer he donated half of the proceeds of an annual charitable golf tournament run on his behalf by his uncle, Peter Kelly, to a three-year old boy who is a respirator-dependant quadraplegic.

"Since I graduated college in June and got a job at MIT, I thought it was time for me to give back," said Mr. Donaghey, who is the social chair ("no pun intended," he quipped) of the Greater Boston Chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. He said the group makes trips to Suffolk Downs and baseball games and holds an annual dinner dance. Does he dance? "Oh, yeah. You can't keep me still in this [chair]."

Now 28 years old, Mr. Donaghey is also a budding actor who last week finished taping his second TV commercial for CVS Pharmacies. This past summer he went to Los Angeles to attend a conference on actors with disabilities. He hopes to find nontraditional roles where the wheelchair is just an attribute, not the focus.

"They tend to portray wheelchair users as either heroes or a person who whines all the time. I want to play a guy who happens to be in a wheelchair.

"This is a disability," he said, "but I want to take advantage of it because there aren't too many people out there trying to do what I want to do."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 8, 1999.

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