A Profile of Perseverance

Fred Maahs

Fred Maahs '84 at the 2014 Voices for National Service Awards.

By Maria Klecko '15

Fred Maahs never dreamed he’d spend what was supposed to be his first day of college in a hospital bed.

Maahs, a 1984 Widener associate's degree graduate who is now in charge of national community partnerships for community investment at Comcast Corporation, had planned to attend Randolph-Macon College in Virginia after graduating high school in 1980.

That all changed a few days before Maahs was going to leave for his freshman year. While out on a boat during a vacation with his family in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, he heard a scream from a man who had fallen off of a nearby sailboat.

"My first reaction was to dive," Maahs said. He wasn't aware that the bow of the boat he was on was resting on a sandbar. He dove head first into a foot of water. He hit the bottom hard.

"You see stars. In that instant, I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what. I couldn't move."

Maahs was airlifted to Thomas Jefferson Hospital. The severity of his injury became clear to him when the helicopter landed on the roof and he saw a team of doctors and nurses running toward him. "It was my holy crap moment," he said.

He had badly bruised his spinal cord. The doctors put him in a frame to take pressure off his damaged vertebrae. They told him his best option was to undergo surgery to repair the damaged vertebrae, but the chances of surviving the operation were 50 percent.

Maahs couldn't physically sign the release, so he asked his father, who was reluctant. He insisted that his father agree. "For me, there was no alternative."

The 13-hour surgery was a success, but Maahs had to adjust to his new life being paralyzed from the chest down. He wore a halo device that was bolted on his head for more than three months while his vertebrae healed. He also experienced breathing and voice changes. He couldn't speak above a whisper for two months.

Maahs stayed at Jefferson for a month and continued his recuperation at Magee Rehabilitation for six months, but his inherent optimism never wavered. He often counseled other patients who felt dejected and suicidal. "I never got depressed or angry during any of this," he said. "It's just who I am. I owe a lot to my parents for making me that way."

This selflessness and positive perspective has led Maahs to accomplish much from his wheelchair, including speaking at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington last August. "I don't want people to feel sorry for me," he said. "I've had a fulfilling, enriched career and a great family. I couldn't ask for more."

A FRESH START

After leaving the rehabilitation facility the year following his accident, Maahs received a letter from Randolph-Macon informing him that its campus wasn't wheelchair-accessible. Another option, however, soon materialized. "As fate would have it, the dean of Brandywine College (Widener's Delaware Campus in Wilmington) was Faye Miller, the mother of my best friend in high school. She said, 'Why don't you come up and check it out? Take a few summer courses.'"

Maahs followed her advice, helped adapt the campus to make it wheelchair-accessible, and completed classes in the summer of 1981. He enrolled full time in the fall. "For two years, I was the only person who used a chair at Widener," Maahs said. "The staff could never do enough for you. They were great."

Don Devilbiss, associate dean of the School of Education, Innovation, and Continuing Studies, worked at Brandywine College at the time and remembers Maahs. "Fred would stop in the Counseling Center a couple of times a week just to say hello and cheer us up," Devilbiss said. "His positive attitude and outlook on life impressed all of us. He was an inspiration to the staff and students alike on campus."

Maahs went on to receive an associate's degree in business from Widener in 1983. He then attended West Chester University where he received a bachelor's degree in business and marketing.

HELPING THE GREATER COMMUNITY
Fred MaahsAfter college Maahs went on to a successful career at CoreStates Bank, Easter Seals, and ARAMARK before joining Comcast in 2007. He now holds the title of director of national partnerships-community investment and vice president of the Comcast Foundation. "I'm very fortunate that something led me here to what I'm doing," Maahs said. "I'm able to use my skills and leadership working with teams and great colleagues."

When Maahs started at Comcast, he led various community service projects, including Comcast Cares Day. It is the nation's largest corporate single day of service—more than 85,000 volunteers participated last April. "Community service is literally in the very fabric of the company," Maahs said.

Increasing digital literacy is an important goal in Comcast's civic engagement efforts. A company program known as Internet Essentials provides low-cost broadband Internet and computers to any student who qualifies for a free or reduced lunch. "In our minds, a student not having access to the Internet is a civil injustice," Maahs said. He works with national community partners to help promote Internet Essentials to the schools and students they serve.

The program not only helps students, but it also enables their families to utilize the Web to find affordable housing and healthcare and to search for jobs. Since the program launched in 2011, Comcast has connected an estimated 1.2 million low-income Americans, or more than 300,000 families, to the Internet at home. "We've been able to impact these students by filling a void and bringing them opportunities," Maahs said.

Comcast Digital Connectors also works to improve digital literacy. The program teaches computer and Internet skills to youth who are mostly from low-income and diverse backgrounds.

The teenagers meet weekly after school for training and receive a certificate of completion when they graduate. "Seeing the students with tears in their eyes upon completing the program hits you," Maahs said. "It makes it all worthwhile."

Comcast also has national partnerships with organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, City Year, and Teach for America. "The work that the company has done has turned lives around and has given communities hope," Maahs said. "That's what we want to do."

A MARCH TOWARD EQUALITY

In addition to his Comcast position, Maahs is chair of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and works with government officials to help change policy for those who are disabled. He said there is still much work to be done in the treatment of those with disabilities, noting that it remains legal for employers to pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage. "It's one thing to make things accessible, but it doesn't necessarily change attitudes," Maahs said. "Just because you're disabled doesn't mean you're unable to work."

In August 2013, he spoke on behalf of the AAPD at the Lincoln Memorial during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington celebration, addressing the giant crowd on the Washington Mall. "To this day I am still trying to put the experience into words," he said. "When you're hearing everybody's stories, you feel their pain, their pride, and their passion all at once, which is overwhelming."

Maahs, who spoke from the spot where King made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, considers the fight for rights of people with disabilities a civil rights issue. "Dr. King's speech was about granting all people equality and dignity regardless of race, disability, sexual orientation, and religion." he said. "At the end of the day, we are all people. You are a person first. Everything else is secondary."

 

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