Crowd surfing in a wheelchair - #inspired

Justin Graves, 24, goes crowd surfing for the first time at the Firefly Music Festival. (Submitted photo/ Justin Graves, 24, goes crowd surfing for the first time at the Firefly Music Festival. (Submitted photo/
DOVER — Justin Graves was seated in his wheelchair, just below the sea of people in the Firefly Music Festival crowd, when performers Matt and Kim incited the mob. “If you have never crowd surfed a day in life, now is the time!” Friends looked at Mr. Graves and said, “Dude, do you want to do it?” Crowd surfing, if you’re not hip to all that goes on in the Woodlands at the Firefly festival in Dover, is when a person is passed from person to person over the heads of the fans. Mr. Graves, 24, has been paralyzed since the age of 3. But he’s never been one to accept limitations. Until just before the show, he had never considered crowd surfing. “Let’s do it,” he replied. “Let’s just do it.” While his friend Sean Nyugen alerted everyone around him, Mr. Graves locked the wheels of the chair and gripped the sides. Up he went. From the Editor logo copy copy“You’re just so tall,” he said. “I’m sitting in my wheelchair for the most part all day. I’m maybe 4 feet tall and I’m always looking at people’s chins. It’s not a bad thing to me. “It’s from where I see the world.” Suddenly he was 8 feet in the air. His first thought was that he wished he had his phone out to record the moment. He rode a wave that took him about 30 jammed rows of people forward to the stage where Matt and Kim were stirring up the crowd with alternative dance music. Two men, for most of the ride, moved his 136-pound body and 10-pound titanium chair forward before passing him on to others. He kept a tight grip on his chair with both hands and tucked in his chin out of fear of falling and hurting himself or someone else. Sometimes, he could see the stage, other times the people cheering him on. “For the most part, I saw sky,” he said. Every few yards, his backpack and jacket would fall and fans always would toss them back into his lap. At the fence before the stage, two security guards grabbed the frame of his chair and lowered him safely, he said. He rolled alongside the stage to the path that leads successful surfers out. “Security says exit this way,” he said. “But that area is a complete mud pit. It’s absolutely disgusting. So I’m like, ‘Crap, what am I going to do?’ ” After a successful plea to take the VIP route around the back of the stage, he found his way out to an accessible viewing area and met up with his buddies after the show. “Crowd surfing is probably the most uncalculated risk I’ve taken in my life,” he said. “I’ve done things like skydiving and zip lining. Those are things where you get training and you have things like harnesses. You sign safety materials and things like that. “It was very spur of the moment. I’ve got to admit that Mom would not be very proud, but I really didn’t think about it. It was like, ‘When the hell else would I ever have the opportunity to do this?’”


This year’s Firefly festival, in the Woodlands of Dover International Speedway, was Mr. Graves’ second. The only other time he had been to Delaware was when he was a child, visiting Alfred I. duPont Hospital for
Justin Graves Justin Graves
Children in Wilmington. Mr. Graves has been paralyzed from the waist down since he was 3 years old. He woke up one day and couldn’t walk, couldn’t feel his legs. His parents, Margo and Larry, found out he had transverse myelitis, a rare disease that causes inflammation and injury to the spinal cord. Mr. Graves has an information technology job in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that he calls his “day job.” His “passion job” is taking part in the Actively Caring for People movement. Mr. Graves often speaks to young students about bullying, diversity, inclusion and other topics around the country. “Everyone has some perceived limitation whether it’s physical or mental,” he said. “We can push through that as long as we have the right systems and especially the right mindset.” He has a goal of meeting a new person each day and trying to help a new person each day. First lady Michelle Obama gave him a shout-out during his 2012 commencement at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. She noted his words, “Life is all about what you’ve done for other people.” His blog — — is written to “show others that living life using a wheelchair is not the end of the world.” His parents instilled in him that his disability shouldn’t define him. “They gave me a mantra,” he said. “It was the idea of behaving in a way that people see me as a person before they see my disability.” In doing so, people are attracted to his positivity and marvel at his determination. One of the first social media remarks about him came in a Twitter line that read, “So I just helped a man in a wheelchair crowd surf.” Matt and Kim shared a picture of his surfing on Instagram. The caption: #inspired “For me, it’s just living life,” he said. “I’m happy it’s inspiring. I don’t wake up every morning saying how am I going to inspire someone today? I wake up saying how am I going to live the funnest I can for me, and if I can inspire people along the way, then hell yeah.”


Attending a music festival was a bucket list item for Mr. Graves. The idea, though, was intimidating. He worried about the crowds and getting around. His close friend, Mauricio Castro, talked him into trying Firefly since it was smaller than some of the more widely known festivals in the country. And, it was fairly close to his Washington, D.C., home. Friends Zac Robertson and John Albonetti joined them for the camping adventure. The accessible campsite was just off one of the paved pathways and it was just a 10-minute stroll from the main areas of the festival. “They made me feel so comfortable and helped me so much,” said Mr. Graves. Last year’s dry conditions made it easier to get around, he said. “This year, we had crazy torrential downpours and mud that came as a result,” said Mr. Graves. “The organizing company, Red Frog, always does a good job but Mother Nature ... sometimes, you can’t beat her.” His friends helped him through the muck and occasionally they welcomed the help of strangers. “That’s the festival spirit,” Mr. Graves said. “They’d see me and my buddies struggling in the mud and a bunch of random people were always ready to jump in.” Mr. Graves summed up his Firefly experience on his blog this way: “Everyone has their own perceived limitations,” he wrote. “If you surround yourself with people who are caring and compassionate, and you reflect the same, anything is possible. You just need a committed and dedicated group of folks around you. “In just about every walk of life, I’m so happy that I have that. Even if they were complete strangers hoisting me up in the air at #Firefly2015.”  
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