Longtime Friends Who Now Use Wheelchairs Help Each Other Through Paralysis: 'We Understand Each Other'
Friends since their middle school days growing up outside of Orlando, David Kellam, 30, and CJ Bellamy, 29, have developed a pretty unique bond. Once accomplished athletes who raced each other to catch the bus, they now push each other to excel in the gym. But this friendship goes far beyond the decades they’ve known each other. Both men are now both paraplegics who use wheelchairs — and they are learning to navigate life by working together.
“It’s perfect. Not only can we talk and relate to what we’re going through, we already have a history,” Bellamy tells PEOPLE. “We teach each other different things like how to transfer from our chairs in and out of the car. We help each other figure things out and it’s also motivating. We’ve been friends for so long and it’s crazy that we have the same injuries.”
Bellamy was on track to play college basketball when, during his junior year of high school in 2006, he was injured in a drive-by shooting while out with friends. The bullet went from his shoulder to his spine, paralyzing the then-17-year-old from the waist down. Kellam says he was in disbelief when he learned the news.
“I was a senior and he was a junior when it happened and I was just like, ‘No way — that couldn’t happen because he had potential to be a pro-basketball player,’ ” Kellam says. “No way that could happen.”
It took Bellamy two years to dig out of a deep depression that basically held him hostage in his house.
“I was hiding because I didn’t feel like everyone was as accepting of me being in [a] chair when they actually were,” Bellamy recalls to PEOPLE. “I went to a community college in Alabama and played on the University of Alabama wheelchair basketball team and that helped.”
It was around that time, in June 2010, that Kellam was injured in a motorcycle accident. He was a sophomore in college and had owned the bike for only a week when he crashed and woke up paralyzed from the waist down. The college football player and track star left college and returned home to Orlando where he finished school and reconnected with his old friend Bellamy.
“It’s crazy that we have the same injuries, it’s nuts. It’s something you’d see in the movies,” Kellam tells PEOPLE. “But it really helps, it’s huge. We understand what each other is going through and can give each other pointers on how to do things and that part is really great.”
These days, the men see each other three times a week at a special CrossFit program designed specifically for people with spinal cord injuries.
“It’s amazing,” Kellam says. “They adapt the program to what we can do and it’s very rigorous which is great because we’re athletes.”
The friends connected with the gym through Kellam’s rehab program at Orlando Health, where the director was looking to create ways for patients to continue working out after they’d completed traditional rehabilitation work. With that, the hospital reached out to area gyms and found a willing participant in SOCF CrossFit in Orlando. The owner of the gym is deaf and was eager to be a part of such an inclusive effort.
“Most gyms, people stare at me because I’m in the chair,” Bellamy tells PEOPLE. “But there they treat us like we’re normal. Everyone is welcoming and there are other people in chairs so it makes you feel comfortable, it makes you feel at home.”
RELATED VIDEO: Woman Left Paralyzed after Falling Off Balcony During Mexico Vacation: I’m Happier Than I’ve Ever Been’
Andrea Cooper, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at Orlando Health, says the program is good for the mens’ physical and mental health — along with simply making them stronger.
“I think it’s really important that they feel like they’re part of a community. A lot of times adaptive programs are inclusive but separated, but with this program they do everything alongside everyone else — just slightly modified.”
Now, Kellam, who works with a non-profit that helps people with disabilities find work, is an accomplished hand-cycle marathoner with hopes to compete in the sport. Kellam tells PEOPLE that being at the CrossFit gym is helping to make that goal a reality.
“It feels good as an athlete to be able to push yourself and CJ and we definitely push each other and motivate each other,” Kellam says.