Injured jockey’s indomitable spirit inspires

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Group has held five fund-raisers to assist Jake Chalfin with medical expenses; two more are scheduled

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

A 34-year-old Springdell resident who grew up in Chester Springs fondly remembers attending a 4-H meeting held in a barn, where, at the age of 7, he felt “a magical draw” to the horses. The experience unleashed an equestrian passion that led to  eventing competitions at the Pickering Hunt Pony Club, a degree in equine science from Colorado State University, and a host of impressive steeplechase wins.

Jake Chalfin said he is extremely grateful to a group who rallied to give him emotional and financial support after his paralyzing steeplechase injury. Photo courtesy of Tod Marks

But on Sept. 18, 2010, Jake Chalfin’s riding future was cut short after a fall at the Blue Ridge races in Berryville, Va. The accident severely damaged his spinal cord but left his fighting spirit unscathed.

“I can remember every last detail of that day,” he said. “I knew I was in trouble. I knew exactly what had happened, and then I was lying on the ground. The only thing I didn’t know was exactly how I physically struck the fence. If I blacked out, it was only for a few seconds.”

Since then, Chalfin, who is paralyzed from the chest down, has committed himself to rebounding, an ambition that has been facilitated by a steadfast group of friends and relatives.

“Absolutely amazing” is how Chalfin describes the organizers of Chasin’ for Chalfin, a fund-raising initiative that has held five events to help him cope with myriad medical expenses that aren’t covered by insurance. Two more benefits are scheduled: The Second Annual Polo Match on Sunday, and a 10K race and 5K walk-run on July 21.

“It’s a humbling experience to have to rely on people,” he said. “But I’m very fortunate.”

Chalfin said the fund-raising events are designed so that participants benefit as well. He said he’s looking forward to Sunday’s polo match. “Last year, everyone had a blast,” he said, adding that people of all ages come to watch, socialize and picnic. “It’s really just a big party.”

In March 2011, after lengthy stints at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and Magee Rehabilitation Center in Philadelphia, Chalfin returned ho, where friends had worked to make his residence wheelchair-accessible. He said he feels blessed to reside in such a supportive community, especially since his parents and an older sister live in Boston. A younger sister is even more far-flung: Germany.

He said expected additions such as ramps greeted him when he returned. But other needs didn’t surface until then. For example, he said Lew Powell, his next-door neighbor, used blocks of wood to elevate his table so that he could still use it.
“That’s just one of many things he and many others have done,” Chalfin said. “I am so grateful; it makes me feel much more secure knowing they’re around.”

Chalfin said he works to strike a balance between being realistic and optimistic. He said at one point he was determined to walk again. “Now that I’ve done the research, I’m much less optimistic for a full recovery,” he said.

But he has not abandoned all hope. Stem-cell advances show promise, but they are not receiving enough interest and funding, he said. Still, “if we have the technology to get to the moon,” anything should be possible, he said.

For now, Chalfin celebrates the progress he has made. A year ago, he required a 24/7 caregiver; now he needs only 3 to 4 hours, he said. He returned to his job as sales manager and marketing director at Laurel Valley Soils, an Avondale business that specializes in mushroom compost.

Chalfin said the company has been terrific, and he is thrilled that he can continue a job that enables him to focus on environmentalism and recycling. His email signature includes a quote he found that highlights the importance of agriculture: “The only thing between man and starvation is a very thin layer of soil.”

Thanks largely to his fund-raisers’ efforts, he has further increased his independence by getting behind the wheel of a specially-equipped vehicle.

These days, he takes nothing for granted. Tasks that once required no thought now take planning – and sometimes assistance. “I need help to change a lightbulb,” he said, again giving thanks to those who answer that call.

In a journal entry, Chalfin acknowledged that he still has unanswered questions, but he shared this goal: “I really just hope I can get through each day giving back just a little more to the universe than I take away.”

Sunday’s fund-raiser will be held at Brandywine Polo Club, 232 Polo Rd., Toughkenamon. Gates open at 1 p.m., and the match starts at 3 p.m. Tickets are $40 per person in advance; $45 on the day of the event. Guests are encouraged to bring a picnic to enjoy before the barbecue starts at 5:30; a limited number of field-side tailgate spots are available for an additional $30.

On July 21, Chalfin will be a beneficiary of the final race in the Trail Creek Outfitters Series on a course that will treat participants to the scenic vistas and waterways of a private estate in West Marlborough. Registration will be held at the intersection of Runnymede and Rosenvick Roads from 7 to 8:15 a.m. with an 8:30 a.m. start time. Awards will be given in multiple age categories. Participants can save $5 from the $30 10K or $20 5K fee by registering by 11 p.m. on July 18.

For more information on Chalfin and the fund-raising activities, visit http://www.chasinforchalfin.com.

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