Paving Navy Street – A Woodbridge-based Charity

Every year, 400 Ontarians acquire a spinal-cord injury, and in 1983, Mary Longo was one of them. After more than three decades of coming to terms with her new reality, she’s inspired her daughter Sandra to create Navy Street, a charity that will make life easier for anyone who is wheelchair-bound.

It took 30 years and a nearly fatal car accident for Sandra Longo to finally realize her calling.

Sitting in the homey Woodbridge living room of her 68-year-old mother, Mary, Sandra’s features tell as much of her story as her words. Shifting from a cloudy sadness as she explains the accident that plunged Mary into paraplegia in 1983 to a sparkling, smiling hopefulness while she divulges her excitement over her new charity, Navy Street, Sandra certainly doesn’t hide that her life has been something of an emotional rollercoaster.

After a slew of family tragedies that almost took the lives of Sandra’s father and brother, the Longos were struck again when Mary was paralyzed while giving birth to her youngest, Liana, due to complications caused by her epidural. In the decades that followed, Sandra had always been inspired by her mother’s experience with paraplegia and knew she wanted to give back in some way. She just didn’t know which avenue to take — until her own accident occurred in January 2013.

It was a wintry morning. Sandra was driving to her job at Rogers Communications on the same country road she always took when her SUV hit a patch of black ice, flipped into the ditch and instantly began to fill with icy water.

“I was literally drowning in my car,” says Sandra. Panicked and disoriented, she began to pray harder than she ever had before. “I said, ‘God, I promise you, if you let me get out of this alive, I will do something great. I don’t know what it will be, but it will change the world for the better.’”

Miraculously, a veteran paramedic happened to be driving by and noticed Sandra’s headlights sinking in the ditch. The paramedic called 911, and just in time, Sandra was saved.

“I had a lot of nerve damage as a result of that accident, and I was getting numbing down my legs and hands,” says Sandra. “My [neurologist] told me that according to my scans, there was pressure on my spinal cord — any more pressure and I would most likely have become a quadriplegic.”

Shaken once again to its core, the Longo family did what it does best: accept and move on. But this time, Sandra took it one step further, taking the culmination of her family’s struggles and turning them into a project with impact: a charity that would help others touched by spinal-cord injuries.

The result is Navy Street, a Woodbridge-based non-profit that donates lightweight, portable ramps to individuals and families who are struggling to adjust to their new lifestyle and to alleviate some of its downsides. Built on Mary’s story and inspired by the difficulties she and her family faced over the years — difficulties as simple as not being able to enter a friend’s home because the step was too high — Navy Street not only provides a tool that makes life a little bit easier for people in her situation, but also a source of hope, understanding and community. By supplying these easy-to-use ramps, the charity helps paraplegics and quadriplegics access the medicine they need the most: being social.

“Come hell or high water, this mission’s going to be accomplished and we’re going to do it right here in the City of Vaughan first”

“There aren’t a lot of people that go out with their wheelchairs, and I don’t know if it’s because of the barriers they encounter or if they feel self-conscious,” says Mary. “The ramps are very important because it gives them a sense of freedom.”
It took just over a year for Sandra to lift Navy Street off the ground, and while it’s still a young charity, it already has a big future ahead of it. Since each ramp costs about $500, Sandra is coming up with ways to let people donate to the charity and get something in return. She’s partnered with local philanthropic jewellery brand Love and Above to create the Strength Bracelet, with 50 per cent of its proceeds going to Navy Street. She’s also planning a fundraising gala in Vaughan this year. Ultimately, Sandra hopes to take Navy Street international, providing a ramp to everyone who’s been touched by a spinal-cord injury.

“The goal is that no one that gets touched by this traumatic condition goes home without having this helping hand of a portable wheelchair ramp,” says Sandra. “Come hell or high water, this mission’s going to be accomplished and we’re going to do it right here in the City of Vaughan first.”

Browsing the Spinal Cord Injury Ontario website, one is hit with a bundle of harsh facts that comprise a paraplegic’s daily life: There are 600 new spinal-cord injuries in Ontario alone every year. On average, it takes a person two to three years after their accident, oftentimes even more, to gain sufficient independence.

As Sandra tries to express the difficulties of growing up with a paraplegic parent, and Mary searches for the verbiage to describe the emotional and physical hurdles that are synonymous with becoming a paraplegic, the truth becomes clear: there are no words. And for a long time after being diagnosed with paraplegia or quadriplegia, it feels like one’s entire life — not just one’s mobility – has been robbed.

In the face of adversity, Mary found the “silver lining.” After finally mourning the death of her old self, she decided to own what life had handed to her and embrace the new Mary — who, she admits, she likes even more than who she was before. Hers is a valuable example to live by in times of struggle, be it small or large.

“Now I’m on the positive side, not the negative side,” says Mary. “I look at the beauty in things.”

It’s a trait she shares with her daughter, who has plans to help anyone in her mother’s position to not only accept, but to love, their new path.

Photos By Carlos A. Pinto / Dolce Media Group

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