PERKINSTON, MS (WLOX) - As Brad Parker watched children from Perkinston Elementary School try on new bicycle helmets, he couldn't help but think back to a time when a safety helmet would have changed his life.
"I thought a lot about it on my drive over here," said Parker, who's confined to a wheelchair after a childhood swimming accident.
"I drove within a few hundred yards of where I broke my neck 30 years ago. If we had programs like this when I was younger, there's no doubt I would not be sitting here having this conversation."
Parker, a member of the Mississippi Paralysis Association, recently teamed with local volunteer Dr. Marie Heim and Memorial Hospital in Gulfport to distribute 600 safety helmets to the kids at Perkinston Elementary. Six other South Mississippi elementary schools also joined the program.
"If ever we can prevent one person from having an accident, it speaks volumes of what we can do as people to make this world a safer place," said Heim, a former instructor at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
The helmet give-a-away was funded through a grant to deliver brain and spinal cord injury outreach education to children through the Memorial Hospital Foundation. That is because every year more than 15,000 Mississippians incur brain and spinal cord injuries.
"In Mississippi we have more problems with ATVs [all-terrain vehicles] becoming a leading cause of traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries," Parker added. "Most of these accidents happen in rural areas."
That's why the "Think First" program was created. The kids watch an educational video and are taught why safety helmets are so important in preventing head injuries.
"We want them to be safe when they're out there," said Heather Sudduth, Memorial Hospital's "Think First" program leader. "We want them to have fun and do what they normally do on a daily basis, but we want them to make safe choices. In terms of concussions and spinal cord injuries, they need to know how to be safe and be able to determine which behaviors are risky and which ones aren't."
Even though that message came too late for Brad Parker, he and others are making sure "Think First" hits home with these children.
"We work as hard as we can to raise the funds, provide the services and give the grants that make these programs go," Parker said. "If we reach one kid, it's worth it, but I hope we reach them all."
Heim, who organized volunteers in Stone County for the event, said she wanted to thank the individuals involved.
"So many volunteers worked hard to ensure the success of this project in Stone County. With that kind of commitment, we can do so much to prevent these types of accidents from happening."
She gave special thanks to Glenn Mac Lott, Thelma Carter, Dawn Parker, Scott Strickland, Lauren Parker, Roland Breland, Kerry Alexander, Gary Jones, Kim Griffin, Jerry Alexander, Wendell Patton, Jere Hess, Earline Hart, Kathy McAdams, Anna Faye Kelly-Winders, Brenda Davis, Bill Synder and Jody O'Hara.