United cerebral palsy center serves as training grounds for running aspirations
By Amy Wolff | Special to the Digital Free Press
High school senior Jack Florez was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was just 2 years old.
Today, he is a competitive cross-country runner at Boulder Creek High School in north Phoenix with dreams of continuing his running career in college thanks to countless hours of physical and occupational therapy at United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona.
Jack was born with periventricular leukomalacia, or PVL, a type of brain damage that involves the periventricular white matter of the brain. Roughly 60-100% of infants with periventricular leukomalacia are diagnosed with cerebral palsy. For Jack, this manifests itself in tight muscles and compromised motor skills.
“As part of his cerebral palsy diagnosis, Jack has difficulty with motor planning, or the ability to carry out an activity using the right steps from beginning to end of the task,” said Valerie Pieraccini, director of therapy and early learning center, UCP of Central Arizona. “This makes seemingly simple tasks like holding a pencil, tying shoes or putting on a jacket, a real struggle. There were moments of intense frustration during therapy sessions, but Jack chose to allow adversity to make him stronger, not hold him back.”
When Jack was in middle school, he wanted to play sports like the other kids, but didn’t have the physical ability to play basketball or baseball. His mom searched for opportunities for him to be part of a team, but also something that allowed him to be an individual. That’s when they discovered cross-country running.
Jack has encountered a lot of hurdles in his 17 years and running competitively has not only helped increase his physical strength and grow his confidence, but it’s also helped other teenagers on his team develop compassion and acceptance for those with disabilities.
“Running is hard, but my UCP therapists worked to prepare me for the challenge,” said Jack. “They helped me set goals and have the confidence I needed not only join the school team, but to run outside on uneven terrain, which is very difficult for me. Cross-country still isn’t easy, but whenever I fall, I know my teammates and my therapists are there to help pick me up and encourage me to keep going.”
United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona serves as training grounds for running aspirations
According to his mother, Jack has incredible endurance and dedication to his sport and will not quit — no matter what.
“When Jack runs cross-country his goal is to shave time off his personal record and improve his standing,” said Shannyn Florez, Jack’s mom. “Without cross-country we notice his attitude is significantly impacted. It is important – both physically and mentally – for Jack to stay active, and thanks to the amazing therapists at UCP he has been able to incorporate cross-country into his life for years.”
Jack has had countless medical interventions throughout his young life, including hundreds of hours of physical and occupational therapy, painful Botox treatments, leg braces and reconstruction of his foot and Achilles tendon two years ago which forced him to run cross-country in a leg brace.
Most recently Jack completed a new challenge when he graduated from UCP’s LIFE Group. This program supports tweens and teens in developing life skills including communication, self-help and social skills.
“LIFE is an acronym for learning independence for every day,” said Ms. Pieraccini. “The program consists of a small group of preteens or early teens who work on real life skills together and learn to manage everyday tasks like doing laundry, cooking, household chores, money management and more.”
Jack is also a proud UCP Youth Ambassador, cerebral palsy advocate and public speaker. He is the youngest person to speak at the Arizona Republic Storytellers event, sharing his life story of living with cerebral palsy to inspire others.
“My UCP therapists are like family to me,” Jack added.
“They helped me reach so many goals and milestones in my life that have led me to where I am now. They taught me that feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to make a difference and that I always had to keep trying. I hope I inspire other kids with cerebral palsy to never give up — no matter what.”
Editor’s note: Ms. Wolf is a communications professional in the greater Phoenix area.