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Louis Frick: A Life in ‘Perpetual Motion’

Disability Awareness Month: 2012 Honoree

Louis Frick was living the California dream. As a young man, the San Diego surf was all he needed. In fact, you could say, the ocean was his life.

"I started swimming competitively at a very young age," Frick recalls. "My parents had a boat, so my dad and I raced sailboats. When I was 13, I learned how to surf. My whole world was all about being in motion, and never slowing down for more than half a second, and whenever possible, being in the ocean."

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Above: KPBS celebrates cultural diversity in partnership with Union Bank by honoring Louis Frick during Disability Awareness Month 2012.

For many years, this was the way it was for Frick. He was always on the go, always on the run, with boundless energy and verve. And then, in a heartbeat, it all came to a halt. The year was 1977 and Frick was 19.

It was then that tragedy hit. After a day of partying and drinking, Frick and his friend got in a car and drove off. A tire blows, the car skids nearly 2,500 feet into an embankment, and they’re ejected from the car. It's dusk, and, if not for another driver seeing it all, who knows what might have happened next. After all, the car lands in an embankment that cannot be spotted from the freeway.

Frick’s friend, who was in the driver's seat, ended up suffering minor injuries, but Frick woke up the next day completely paralyzed.

For Frick, Disability Awareness Month 2012 honoree, life as he knew it was over, and a new one had just begun. "My disability was like someone flipping a light switch," he remembers. "One minute I'm in full gear, on the beach in the morning and partying at night. And the next, I'm in the ER and someone's trying to save my life."

He sums up the days following the accident as being all about survival. "I wasn't sure if I was going to make it. I went through a whole range of emotions--anger, fear, depression, uncertainty, because my whole life had been perpetual motion and now physical activity was all done with. That was the beginning of figuring out what life was about."

Frick spent years in and out of hospitals, rehab, and physical therapy. For a while, he moved back home to live with his parents, but then his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and not wanting to add to his father's burden of caring for two, he moved out once more. Then, about three years after the accident, a caregiver suggested he go to Community Service Center for the Disabled, a place Frick had never heard of before.

Credit: Monica Medina

Louis Frick in his office at Access to Independence.

Today it is known as Access to Independence, and Frick is its executive director. Ironically, its beginnings parallel Frick's disability. Founded in 1976 as a non-profit, it didn't begin offering services until 1977, the year of Frick's accident. According to its website, its purpose is to provide services to people with disabilities to help maximize their independence and fully integrate them into their communities.

Frick becomes emotional when he recalls his first visit to the center, and the realization that he wasn't alone. "It was amazing to see other people like me. The thing that blew me away was that these were people who had jobs and kids and were just living their lives. Just seeing that you could do other things, and talking to someone that knew what it was like was life changing, knowing that all these things were possible."

It didn't take long for Frick to get hired there. If you ask him, he'll say it wasn't because of his skills. He insists he didn't have any. But, Frick, a man of compassion, and a good listener, too, radiates empathy. Which was all he needed to begin helping others.

He's now been involved with Access to Independence for over 30 years. "The only two requirements to benefit from our organization, is that someone has a disability that they identify--and we don't ask for medical documentation--and that they can benefit from our services. This year, we'll probably serve 4,000 people directly, and provide referrals to another 10,000."

Frick, who returned to school and earned a degree in education from San Diego State in 2005, and who will soon be receiving his Master's in rehabilitation counseling, is committed to helping people with disabilities. He works diligently to make sure San Diego is accessible, whether through his work on the development of Petco Park, the Super Bowl XXXVII, or by serving on the Mayor's Committee on Disability for the City of San Diego.

"It's important to help others,” he says. “I got help early on, and it's made a huge difference in my life. The most rewarding thing is seeing people come in after their injury, and helping them and showing them the opportunities that they didn't know were out there."

As Frick reflects on the accident, which occurred 35 years ago, and sees how far he's come, he gets misty-eyed and philosophical. "These are the experiences I'm supposed to have because they're the ones I'm having. Meaning, that whatever's happening is supposed to happen, whether I like it or not. And, that's much easier to intellectualize than to experience. I'm trying to make peace with that, and figuring out what to do with it."

Today, Frick is married and has three children. And, while he may no longer have a life that is all about the ocean, through his work in helping others, he is still living a life that is in perpetual motion.

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