On April 21, 2018, Chris Norton — who was paralyzed in a 2010 college football accident — married Emily Summers and found the determination to walk her 7 yards down the aisle.
And nearly two months later, life for the newlyweds couldn’t be better.
On June 16, Chris, Emily and their five foster children who are all under 8 years old, made a special trip for Father’s Day and headed to Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Florida.
“There is no greater experience than seeing our kids light up with joy and excitement,” Chris, 26, of Port St. Lucie, Florida, tells PEOPLE. “They come from situations that are unimaginable and rarely or never get to have an experience of staying in a hotel and going to a zoo.”
They wanted to make the moment a “big surprise,” he says, so as the family was driving into the zoo, the kids didn’t know what they had planned.
“Emily and I played the song’Africa’ and announced we are going to a zoo and like clockwork, the kids started screaming at the top of their lungs,” says Chris. “You would think that we just told them that we were spending a whole week in Disney World.”
The kids yelled with excitement every time they saw an animal and also went on water slides, a carousel and ate ice cream.
For Chris, every moment since his Oct. 16, 2010, accident is special. It was just six weeks into his freshman year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, when he was on the football field for a game against Central College. In the third quarter, he mistimed a play — one that he had been trained to do thousands of times before — which caused the 18-year-old athlete to suffer a spinal cord injury.
Lying on the ground, he remembers feeling like “someone had turned the power off to my body” while the entire stadium fell silent, he says. “I’m trying to push [myself up] off the ground, but nothing’s working. I prayed to God to please let me just get up and walk off the field.”
After being airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, he was told that he had fractured his C3-C4 vertebrae and had a three percent chance of ever moving anything below his neck ever again.
Watch the full episode of Chris Norton: Overcoming Paralysis One Step At A Time, streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.
“I wasn’t going to accept that,” he says, firmly. “I was going to be part of that three percent.”
Just one year later, in 2012, he started the Chris Norton Foundation, which has since raised over $800,000 for people with spinal cord injuries.
Today, Emily, 25, says that “Chris does so much for our family.”
“He’s the biggest supporter and is such a great example of how a husband and father should be,” she says. “It has been incredible seeing the impact he makes in our kids life by the way he lives his life.”
She added: “These kids have gone through so much and they always relate with Chris and the struggles he has faced. He shows them to never give up, to find the good and enjoy every day.”
Because Emily and Chris are foster parents, they want to make sure the kids feel extremely loved because they won’t be with them forever.
“We don’t know how long we will have them so it’s important to us that we give them some memorable experiences,” says Chris, “that they will never forget.”